A SPINNEY TO PLAY IN
(A Countryside Childhood: 1957-1967)
I suppose that there are two inspirations for this collection of reminiscences about my childhood.
Firstly, my urge to record some of the earlier times in my life will be familiar to those of you that have had sight of my two previous essays on my time abroad and the Leicestershire Schools Orchestra. You'll recognise the style and know what to expect; putting pen to paper to record little pieces of times gone by while simultaneously capturing events that were important to me or my friends.
However, this interlude has a second, more compelling, motivation. A few years ago I read a book called Lifting the Latch, by Sheila Stewart. The book concerned the life and times of a country lad born around the turn of this century. It was substantially a chronicle of social history of someone who had lived through the greater part of the twentieth century. But what made the book so memorable for me was the vivid recollections and detail of the storyteller, coupled with the fascination for the differences in the way of life in those days - a time that my grandparents had shared.
So it occurred to me that my own childhood might one day - in the twenty-first century - possess an equal fascination for my own grandchildren. So it's almost a vignette of a country boy's childhood spent growing up in the nineteen-fifties and sixties; a sliver of social history that has already now long passed.
So the book's not for my contemporaries or me. Its purpose is to have perhaps some small interest to a reader in maybe thirty of forty years time. You're just getting a preview in case you're not around then!
Why now? Simple. I won't be able to remember it if I wait any longer!
Setting the scene
I was brought up in a small village called Gumley, which is about five miles from Market Harborough in Leicestershire.
In many ways it's much the same today as it was when I was born in 1952. It's still only two rows of houses placed either side of a road on a hillside amidst woodland. There are no road junctions in the village, no turn-offs, and no main roads. On a broadly north/south axis it's a mile and a half from the nearest villages of Laughton to the north and Foxton to the south.
The boundaries of the village have hardly changed (thank goodness), and, in many ways, the social fabric has remained intact in the thirty-five years since I was a boy. Many of the same families still live in the village now as did then, although I'd estimate that perhaps half the population of around one hundred has changed in the intervening period. There's still no street lighting, although there are a good many more road and footpath signs these days than there were then.
Arguably, Gumley's most distinctive feature is the way that it starts on high ground at the north end, and descends in a series of plateaux and slopes to the far end at the south. There are many woods and spinneys in the immediate surroundings, and there are only one or two vantage points of greater than a mile where the whole village doesn't appear to have been swallowed up by trees.
There were five farms in the village in 1952; two belonging to the Andrews; two belonging to the Seabrooks; and the Ashby's farm. When I say belonging I use the word in the loosest sense since a great deal of the village and surrounding farmland is part of the estates belonging to the Goodmans or the Murray-Smiths. Some villagers own their own homes or have bought them from the Murray-Smiths but the latter family is still easily the majority landowners.
I came to realise in later years that the Seabrooks had been in the village for at least two hundred years, and in this sense, it illustrates the way that families must have been a lot less mobile in those days. If fifty per cent of the village families have changed in the last forty years, I suspect only half that number changed in the previous forty. Many more families in those days must have been tied to their work on the land, whereas now anyone with a car and the necessary funds can come to the village to retire or commute to the nearest town. I suspect the number of villagers now actively engaged in farming is less than a dozen.
We lived in a rented cottage that was, and still is, the last but one house on the bottom left hand side as you look up the village street from the south. I had a sister, Barbara, who was two years younger than me, and a brother, Jim, who was six years younger.
St. Helens church is still the most noteworthy building in Gumley, dating back many centuries and situated a hundred yards north of the village proper, almost as if it gazes down proudly at all the houses spread out below it.
When I was a child Gumley Hall still stood just beneath the church. This was an imposing building; I suppose you might even have called it a stately home today if it was still standing. The hall was demolished around 1962 but I can still picture the front facade in my mind's eye.
There were two other landmarks in those days - as there are now. The first is the clock tower, which, contained within Colonel Murray-Smith's stables, used to form part of the outbuildings of the old hall. The second was the pub, the Bell Inn, right next door to our house. The Clock Tower always looked slightly out of place for such a small village, especially as it had a large Latin inscription over the entrance that nobody could translate. Still it served a very useful purpose by ringing the hours and quarters which could be heard for miles around. I lost count of the number of times that I'd come home for dinner or supper as a child when I heard it ring, say, one o'clock or eight o'clock (according to the season).
There were no shops in the village but we were at least fortunate enough to boast a Post Office in the house opposite the Bell Inn. Long since closed of course, I can clearly remember being nose high to the counter and watching the rubber stamp marker being banged into the ink tray sitting on a cork mat.
It seems hard to believe now, but the village pump used to work. For as long as I can remember it had a sign next to it indicating the water wasn't fit to drink, but, as young lads, we drank it anyway. The water looked OK to me.
To this day, one of the most pleasing aspects of the village architecture is that because the houses have been constructed over such an extended period of time, very few houses are identical to their neighbours. Ours is like next door's, and there's a few small cottage terraces, but, on the whole there's a pleasant diversity of styles unspoiled by the widespread addition of regimented council houses that have spoiled so many other villages in rural England.
In those days children like myself associated houses with either an adventure or interest factor, or somehow inextricably linked the house with their owner. So, for example, if the house belonged to an alert owner who could easily see our approach, it made us wary of investigating the outbuildings or the garden for its potential to play in
The Pickerings lived as tenants in the first house above the pub. The house itself had a large yard to the rear which contained a number of barns and sheds which were good to play in as they rarely seemed to contain any livestock.
The next building up was owned by the three Jesson ladies and was of little interest to us because you couldn't get into their back yard. Indeed, I was always wary and frightened of visiting the Jessons since, even though the ladies themselves were elderly, their mother was of even greater age and virtually blind. When I visited with my mother the old lady would reach out and feel me with her hands to 'see' my features. Pretty scary to a five-year-old.
Above the Jessons stood the old 'White House' (now demolished) occupied by the Allens. Since David Allen was only a year older than me, I was a regular visitor there, especially since his Dad consecutively owned a series of old jalopies that always interested us.
The back of this garden and the ones that backed on to Ashby's fields, we regularly used as a short cut from the back of my garden to the footpath that bisected the village on the west side. Between the Allens and this footpath was a small detached house and a row of terraced cottages. The cottages themselves had a common right of way to the rear that we would use to hide in and play around. Like our own house, and many others in Gumley, the cottages had an outside lavatory. This didn't seem at all unusual to a child of my age, and we simply took it for granted.
There were two detached houses above the footpath. The first was of no interest for us except in the autumn when the fruit of the apple trees were ripe and we could sneak in for our scrumping. However, the house above was familiar for two reasons. First of all Mr Hopwell, who lived there, was a keen gardener and was forever outside keeping an eye on what was going on. Secondly, because his garden was opposite the school playground, we were inevitably kicking footballs into his garden, which would lead to angry shouts or even confiscation.
Above Mr Hopwell, the Ashby's farmland began. This farm was always the scene of some considerable activity with something going on in the sea of mud that represented their yard. There were numerous outbuildings and barns for us to play in, apart from the ones that had Kelly Ashby's horses in. The house itself always gave me the impression that it was too big for the three of them and I never saw anyone in the front rooms in all the time they lived there.
The Stafford family lived next door to the Ashbys. Although they were farmers, most of their fields were situated in Laughton and the house itself wasn't used as a farm.
Mr and Mrs King lived in the next house up, and their home adjoined two similar terraced houses where Nobby Clark and his next-door neighbour lived. The Seabrook's farm occupied the next plot, and, because Geoff Seabrook was my best friend, I spent a great deal of my childhood playing in the vicinity of their yard and barns. Like most of the farms, there were always two or three sheepdogs in the Seabrook's farm and you could never visit the house without setting them off barking. The dogs were always a bit intimidating when you were a small boy, and I was always happier when Geoff called for me rather than the other way around.
Only one more house stood between the Seabrooks and the Andrews' farm at the top of the village, and it didn't interest us as you couldn't get to the rear of it very easily. Even the Andrews' farm didn't really interest us because there were no children of our age who lived there, no outbuildings suitable for exploration, and we therefore didn't visit often.
On the opposite side of the village the first buildings were the aforementioned stables containing the Clock Tower. Immediately below the stables was the Bull Yard, which was a great source of adventure. Despite its name, it was only rarely used to round up livestock, and we had all the sheds to ourselves as an ideal place for climbing, playing, and generally messing around.
The place next door went through various transformations over the years. I first remember it when it was occupied by the Freers, who used the greenhouses on the site (formerly part of Gumley Hall's kitchen garden) in an attempt to run a small nursery. Below this Sam Seabrook's farm was in almost continuous use by Sam or Arthur going about their business or us children at play. Geoff's cousin Andy lived there, and although he was a couple of years older than we were, we often met up at his house before we went out to play. Just as importantly as this, the yard gave us access to the Nut Spinney, the Lake, and the woods and spinneys to the east of the village.
As it is today, the next one hundred yards has a wall running along the boundary of 'The Spinney'. Despite the fact that there were so many spinneys and woods surrounding the village, everyone knew what we meant by The Spinney.
Below the Spinney wall there were a number of different houses with one thing in common; they all backed on to the Spinney. In the midst of these houses was the Village Hall. In my day this was an old building that did not intrude into the Spinney boundary, but nowadays there's a nice modern building erected in the late nineteen-sixties. The Westons and Martins lived between the Village Hall and the phone box, with the Haynes large house and garden taking up most of space below that.
As the village street leaves the north of the village it curves left before it gets to the church with a tall brick wall on the near side and Davidson's wood on the right. Davidson's wood was so-called because of the family of the same name that used to live in Gumley Hall. I'm not sure why they should have assumed such importance as to have a wood named after them, but it wasn't the sort of question you asked yourself at that age. Anyway, on my first visit to the wood I'd been shown what, for a child of my age, was a fascinating and scary special 'feature'. It was a deeply dug rectangular hole in the ground covered by a type of metal frame supporting planks of wood; a sort of underground den I suppose. I can remember being distinctly wary of entering this den for the first time with nothing to see but darkness, but, encouraged by my friends, I eventually had to take the plunge. I've no idea why the den had been built although I was told at the time that it was dug in the war for hiding in if the Germans came. I rather suspect now that little anecdote was the figment of someone's imagination.
The Three-Cornered Spinney was so called because it formed a triangle at the junction of the road north from the village where it went east to Smeeton Westerby or west to Laughton. It was only a small spinney and of little interest to my friends and me because it contained virtually no climbable trees.
Just to the north-east of the Three-Cornered Spinney is an isolated house called Keeper's Cottage. This was home to the Murray-Smith's gamekeeper, Pop Jelley.
Strange as it seems, Pop is a woman. All the village children would inevitably come across her as we played in the woods. Apart from the fact that I couldn't understand how the village had ended up with a woman gamekeeper, her main job seemed to us to involve stopping us getting up to mischief.
I could never understand why she would want to do this. We didn't do any harm except climb up trees and mess about. But she had the uncanny knack of turning up wherever we were playing and throwing us out of the woods. For years on end we could never play a game in the woods without, at some juncture, we'd hear a background noise and stop what we were doing to listen for Pop Jelley. More often, she'd surprise us and emerge from the bushes with a cry of 'What are you boys up to' or some similar phrase. I felt like shouting at her, 'Why we're playing, of course' but I didn't because I was only a child and you didn't talk to adults in that way in those days. Still, I suppose she was only doing her job. Anyway, more of the village and the villagers later.
I'm inclined to believe that children of my generation were the last to truly play as part of the countryside. I suppose we bridged the gap between all those children who had played before us - without modern distractions - and today's new age of childhood with its sophisticated use of new technology and the entertainment derived from it. I'm sure that there are children now who live in the countryside and who play in the woods and fields, but I doubt that it's all the children in each village that take part, or that they aren't distracted in some way by TV or computer games. Moreover, the increased levels of traffic must to some degree affect all but the remotest villages over the last thirty years. There can't be many village streets that are safe enough to play on for hours on end without worrying that a car may appear from around the corner.
Even as a child I unconsciously knew that many of the games and activities that I took part in had been handed down to us through countless Gumley children who had preceded me. Somehow we acquired skills because older children knew those same skills, and, although they never appeared to deliberately pass on this knowledge, we somehow learnt by association.
But while we inherited this knowledge of country childhood pastimes, we complemented them with new pursuits that were a unique product of our own time. For instance, one of our occasional games was car number spotting. We would simply sit on the Spinney wall with our pencils and pieces of paper and record the registration numbers of vehicles passing through the village. Each of us had our own 'collection'. Car numbers of the time had no prefixes or suffixes and were easier to 'spot' and turn into silly words that only young children would laugh at. There's no question in my mind that this activity was unique to those years. It would never have held the attention of children before the war when there wouldn't have been enough motorised traffic to sustain the interest of mischievous boys and keep them occupied. And now? The idea of car number spotting must seem absurd to today's children; you'd certainly fill up a notebook pretty quickly! But, more importantly, children now wouldn't see the point in what must seem such a meaningless practice. It's just not exciting enough to compete with the alternative attractions on TV.
But for us it was great fun. Cars came into view just frequently enough to keep us from wandering off to find something else to play, and we would vie with each other to see who could read the number first as the vehicle came towards us. Occasionally, we would panic as a car quickly followed close behind, or, even worse, another approach us simultaneously from the opposite direction.
So this was just one of the games that was only played by the first generation of post-war kids, and I doubt will ever be played by succeeding generations. It's a game that belongs to the past like Spinning Tops was part of my parents' time. But before I mention others perhaps I had better start at the beginning.
Because, like most children, I can't remember the games that I played in my pre-school years, I've decided not to include them here. No doubt my parents could add numerous anecdotes of their own, but relating them here doesn't appeal to me because I have to decide where to draw the line, and if I start down this road I'll have the whole village reminiscing - which isn't the point of what I hope will be a child's eye view of those times. So my first memory of being allowed to go out to play unsupervised with the other children of the village was when I was about six or seven. In those days our favourite game was Fox and Hounds.
Fox and Hounds was a brilliant game because it transcended the age barrier and allowed all the kids in the village to join in. Virtually all the children from seven to fourteen years old would take part. The basis of the game was simple - one of us was the 'fox' and the rest of the group were the 'hounds' that had to find the fox. The main difference between this and Hide and Seek is that the game was played over huge distances and one game could take all evening. The fox would run across two or three fields or into a wood. All the hounds had was a view of the runner until he (it was usually a 'he') was out of sight. The chase could sometimes take hours as up to a dozen kids roamed the countryside in search of the fox.
I clearly remember arriving home as darkness fell even at that early age. Of course, the world was a much safer place for children in those days. I don't think my parents worried when I trotted off up the street to play. It just didn't seem likely that anything untoward would happen given the moral climate at the time and that it was a village where everyone knew everyone else. It seemed so natural to place one's trust in the goodness of country people at that time. Except in very unusual circumstances, one didn't hear about child molesters and abductors.
So each day after school I would quickly get changed and rush off up the village to see who was playing and what game would be on offer. As soon as I met one of my friends both of us would make suggestions as to what game to play until, by mutual consent, we hit on something that would appeal to each of us.
My best friend in those early years was Geoff Seabrook, who was six months older than me. We did everything together. The main playing areas would be the woods and spinneys surrounding the village, but by far the most popular of these was the Spinney. It was invariably our first and foremost playing ground because it was just so convenient. It was big enough to play Hide and Seek in, while not being large enough to be classified as a wood. Most importantly, it had the right blend of trees and undergrowth with very few pine trees, lots of bushes, and offered a number of trees suitable for climbing. It sloped from one side to another - steeply in the top half - which made it more interesting, and was covered in a dense layer of keck in the spring - ideal for hiding in. Better still, the undergrowth was most conducive for den-making, and we could also leave it by a variety of exits (very important when playing pranks).
We would rarely travel the length of the village down the street if we could walk though the Spinney instead, much preferring the latter route to check out what had been happening since the last time that we were there (usually the day before).
Geoff, the other children, and myself played all the usual 'little boy' games in those early years. We would make 'roads' in the gravel by the village pump, climb on every object greater than six inches high, and repeat all the school games of Hopscotch, Tig, What's the time Mr Wolf?, and Dodging. But we were also drawn in to the games played by the older boys and girls. This older group of children consisted of Andy Seabrook, Geoff's half-brother Frank Bingley, Eric Ashby, Rosemary Mothersole and Susan Pickering. When we were a little older, my sister Barbara would sometimes be tolerated although, boys being boys, we would normally prefer boys-only playing activities.
We dressed in the usual clothes of the day, perennially in short trousers that would quickly become scruffy and dirty. We would often wear a cap or woolly hat in the winter months, and a vest (or even a liberty bodice) when it was really cold. We didn't go in for coats very much (we thought it was a bit cissy), and must have tried our mothers' patience on all those occasions when we would arrive home with dirty, torn jumpers and trousers.
As you would expect, the inhabitants of the village were most active in the summer months. Farming, and those engaged in farming activities, dominated what was happening in the village, while those not associated with the land, like my father, would be busy with their gardening. But the separation of these activities wasn't as clearly defined as it would be now as many non-farming families also kept chickens, or has something to do with horses. Our family kept chickens and spent a good deal of time trying to keep out the foxes with elaborate wiring and fencing arrangements. The foxes still managed to get in though and this was probably a significant factor in the eventual decision to give up the chickens and plant vegetables instead. Although we kept our own chickens for eggs, we didn't kill them to eat. For eating, we bought boiler chickens - which my mother had to pluck - from Holyland's farm just up the road. What isn't obvious today is that eating chicken was much more of a rarity and a treat in those days, and usually reserved for Christmas and such like. Most of our meat intake - which usually consisted of beef, pork and such like - came from the travelling butcher's van which visited the village on Tuesdays and Fridays
The farmerís year began with lambing. The youngest lambs would be born prematurely and the farmers would be forced into caring for them with many of the sheep penned into barns, and a few, rejected by their mothers, needing to be hand-suckled. I'd get dragged into this because Geoff's dad was a farmer and Geoff would be expected to help. Most of the time I'd just go around to watch and do little odd jobs like fetching buckets and so on. Usually I couldn't wait to get away so we could get down to some proper playing.
When it came to playing, I suppose there were three main contenders for the most popular game; Hide and Seek, Cowboys and Indians (or the Soldiers variation), and Bows and Arrows.
Hide and Seek could take place anywhere with enough space. The Spinney was the best spot although other woods were occasionally used. We knew all the woods like the backs of our hands. Spring and early summer were best for hide and seek because you could easily hide in the keck when it was two to three feet tall. We'd break off bits of keck to push down the necks of our jumpers as camouflage, and, if we were hiding in the keck, someone could be quite near before we'd jump up at them and frighten them to death.
It was harder to have fun playing in the winter. With dark nights closing in we were restricted to playing during the daylight hours at the weekends. But we made good use of the time.
I'd call for Geoff and we'd head for the Spinney and two of our favourite spots. The first was the Parrying Tree. This was a pine tree, mid-way between the top and bottom of the Spinney, which had a number of horizontal branches sprouting from the main trunk, about twelve feet from the ground above the main Spinney path. We'd climb the tree and swing from these branches before dropping to the ground accompanied by suitable cries. It was a number of years before I realised that 'parrying' was shortened term for parachuting, and that some child playing years earlier must have designated it thus for the rest of us.
But by far the most popular spot was the Spinney wall almost opposite Geoff's place. Because the wall was so thick, it was a good place to sit and watch the world go by. If you didn't have anything to or anyone to play with, you could still go and sit on the wall by yourself and that was OK. Sooner or later old chaps would come along - perhaps Gagey Seabrook or old Mr Boothaway - both leaning on their walking sticks, and puffing their pipes. They'd exchange a word or two and we'd take them for granted as part of local scene.
I can't mention Mr Boothaway without thinking of his wife, and, in turn, I can't remember her without an image of her rubbish dump springing to mind.
What is difficult to appreciate nowadays is that in the history of England there haven't always been dustbin collections! Council rubbish collections are a relatively recent phenomenon and in years gone by people had to more or less fend for themselves. So it was quite common for a village to have a rubbish dump, or, more often, a number of dumps. A large dump existed just behind the Spinney wall, although it was just about coming to the end of its useful life when we were children, but we often used to unearth all sorts of old and interesting things.
Old Mrs Boothaway had an advantage over most of the village folk in that her garden wall backed onto the Spinney. So it was a common sight for us as we made our way along the Spinney path to see her heaving her old leftovers over the wall and onto her dump. Not that there were a great many leftovers in those days. People still looked after and mended things then rather than throw them into the dustbin or onto the local tip as they do now. So I never saw her dispose of more than old cabbage leaves, potato peelings, jars and cans.
Where was I? Oh yes, Hide and Seek. Well, regardless of where we'd chosen to play, this game took its traditional form and we'd all scatter while the seeker covered his or her eyes and counted to one hundred or some similar number. On a shout of "I'm Coming" (with a long accent on the 'o'), the seeker would be off and searching. We usually all got caught but, occasionally, someone would hide well enough not to be found and would be declared a winner.
Some activities weren't so much games as pastimes. One of these was to cross the field at the back of our house and make our way to the stream at the bottom of Ashby's field. A two hundred yard stretch of the stream would be sure to contain sticklebacks. For the first couple of visits we were contented to peer through the water at them but soon we were setting off with our jam jars, and little nets on the end of cane sticks. We were fascinated by their shining colours but scared to handle them because of the tiny spikes on their backs. But it wasn't too difficult to catch a few, tip them into jars, and carry our prizes home. They didn't last long of course. We didn't know how to look after them and they soon died.
This process was repeated in the spring when we'd do the same thing with frog spawn. This was even more interesting as, day by day, we'd watch the spawn turn into tiny swimming tadpoles. These would die as well because I'd forget them, or leave them in the sunlight on the washhouse windowsill.
When I was very young my mother was still washing clothes by hand, and using the washhouse afterwards to put them through the roller before hanging them out on the washing line to dry. As well as our outside toilet and the washhouse, we had a shed full of wood and Dad's tools, as well as a coal shed. The village had a regular weekly delivery of coal and the coalman would hump his sacks around the back of Fosketts to tip them out onto the floor of the shed.
The village and its folk
As a child you tended to remember all the people that lived in the village in a way that seems remarkable now. Perhaps adults seemed larger than life then or more intimidating. Certainly impressions seem very vivid at that age.
The Colonel inspired awe in the children. Just the title was enough, but the fact that we all knew that he owned half the village made you even more aware of his importance. Add the fact that his house was set back from the road half-a-mile to the north of the village, meant that from my point of view, an air of mystery and reverence surrounded the Colonel and his family.
The Colonel's house overlooked Gumley Lake. The Lake is set back to the east of the village and is one of its best-kept secrets. It's a substantial size but has no public access and so is only rarely visited - and then almost exclusively by villagers. A little island sits in the middle of the lake, while the lake itself is rumoured to be very deep. Over on the far side of the lake are the remains of an old tennis court and its pavilion. When I was a lad, Gumley Hall was situated above the lake and just below the church. The Hall was an imposing building and we were rarely allowed near enough to play in or around it.
The Marks family lived up towards the top of the village and, although they'd moved to Market Harborough by the time I was nine years old, Alan and Perry were always getting into trouble and were definitely a bad influence on me.
One of their most mischievous activities was 'playing dead'. The way this worked was that Alan would lie in the middle of the road - just before the Dark Spinney - and pretend to be 'dead''. Perry and I would hide behind Andrews' big wall in a state of giggly excitement. Within a few minutes a car would appear from the turn at the top of the village and brake to a halt at the sight of Alan in the road. The driver or the passenger would open the car door and rush forward to see what was wrong.
Alan's speciality was to get the timing right so that he'd make them get out of the car but not so late that he'd get caught before he had time to jump up, make a face, and dash for the safety of the wall where he'd join Perry and I who had been peering over the top to watch the events unfold. Of course, it was outrageous prank.
It wasn't often we were so naughty. Normally we'd be more interested in playing in the woods.
North and west of the Dark Spinney lies the Big Field. This is a one-hundred acre field that is surrounded a number of outlying woods, including the Three-Cornered Spinney, Gumley Covert, and Holloway Spinney on the Saddington road behind the local cricket pitch.
One intriguing aspect of Gumley Covert was that one family lived in it! For some inexplicable reason someone at some time had built a house smack in the middle of the Covert and the Wallace family lived there. Why it was there, and why the Wallace's occupied it, was a complete mystery to me, although I have since learned hat the Illsons used to live there before the Wallaces. Although they had electricity, that was just about it since the house was completely surrounded by thick woodland.
Paddy Wallace was the oldest of the children, and about seven years older than I was. He used to walk to the village and take part in some of our games in a circumspect sort of way. I remember being awed by his strength, as he was able to throw apples from the Village Hall to the Haynes' house.
The Wallaces moved out of the village when I was about nine years old and the house fell into ruin (helped in no small way by Geoff and I) and it remains that way to this day. For the life of me, I can't understand why anyone would want to build a brick house in the middle of a wood anyway. No way would they get planning permission nowadays!
When you're a youngster, certain village characters appeared to be larger than life, and other events took on a significance that would not normally be apparent to an adult. I'd hardly ever see or speak to some folk in the village and they'd consequently take on an air of mystery, or a slight tendency to frighten boys of such a young age. Once you'd spoken to someone once or twice however, you'd relax a bit when you realised that they were ordinary people.
I'd always see the farmers - or anybody else associated with the land - through playing in the fields, and because they were habitually out and about and travelling up and down the village. But some inhabitants, especially the older ones, rarely ventured out, and I'd only get glimpses of them, or sometimes, like the older Mrs Weston, not even see them at all.
I knew the Allens well because, in the early days, their son, David, was the only other boy in the village who was nearly the same age as Geoff and myself. But because he was year older (which is a lot at that age), this meant that he was an occasional rather than a regular playmate.
I can just about recollect old Mr Harbidge living in the next house up from the Allens. My memory is of him standing in the entrance to the little lane at the side of his house while puffing away on his pipe. Nearly all the old men of the village smoked a pipe, a habit that seems to have almost disappeared nowadays.
Mr Keegan, the local roadsweeper, used to live in the first of the terraced cottages, and a larger than life character called Mr McDonald lived a couple of doors up from Mr Harbidge. I was never quite sure what he did, except that he did seem to end up cadging a lift to Harborough in my Dad's car on a number of occasions. A train at Kibworth station had killed One day I heard that he. This was quite a shock to me as I had only rarely heard of anyone dying from other than natural causes, unless it was in a book or film. The Hands family lived in the last house before the lane but had moved out by the time I was ten years old.
Apart from Mr and Mrs Davis who lived opposite us, the only people on the other side of the village before the phone box were the Haynes's and Mrs Mothersole's mother who lived opposite the pub (the phone box was always referred to as the half-way demarcation point between the top and bottom of the village). I'd sometimes visit the Haynes with my Mum but, like most elderly residents, they weren't very interesting to a boy of my age.
For me, the most significant arrival in the village during my childhood was the relocation of the Martin family. Mr Martin came to take up the post of the Colonel's groom, but, more importantly, the family brought Rod, the same age as myself, and Lynda, two years younger, to add to the village's small contingent of children. For the first time Geoff and I had another boy of the same age to play with, and our combined friendship lasted for the rest of our childhood.
In truth, for a small boy my age the buildings and other features of the village were often of greater significance than the folk themselves. You couldn't climb on people but you could on just about everything else. Some of the roofs of the village barns or outbuildings were just too steep to clamber onto, or were just plainly inaccessible. But others were difficult and therefore just represented a greater challenge. At the top of the village we'd jump around on the rooves of the barns that made up the Bull Yard, and the Stables. This was often part of an organised game, like Follow my Leader, where, unsurprisingly, one of us set the pace by climbing over walls, across rooves, up trees, while the rest of us had to follow. On other occasions we'd just climb up something and sit around on it just because it was there and we were higher up than everyone else was.
We'd look longingly at the Clock Tower but it was years before I had the opportunity to climb the ladders inside to get to the platform at the top. Normally, we weren't allowed up the tower and the door below was kept firmly locked. But, one day, Rod managed to obtain the key (I wasn't sure whether he'd asked his Dad or not but Geoff and I didn't ask too many questions), and up we went. The thrill and excitement as we emerged onto the platform about twelve feet from the top was wonderful. There, stretched out in front of us was the village and woods that we knew so well but had never seen from such an angle. We spent ages ooh-ing, ah-ing, and pointing out various landmarks to each other with excited shouts. Once, the bell actually tolled while we were in the bell tower and, deafened by the sound, we put our hands over our ears while grimacing and laughing at each other.
By the nature of their jobs, farmers (and Pop Jelley) would often catch us up to mischief and send us packing. There was never any cheekiness or backchat in those days. If we were caught, that was it, and off we went to find somewhere else to play.
Geoff's dad, Arthur, was forever catching us out playing on the roof of some old barn like the one near the Covert at the end of the conker tree field, or the one at the bottom of the Nut Spinney. He'd growl, huff and puff on his pipe, and call us 'soft buggers'. Now and again we'd go too far and he'd chase after us with the stick that was never far from his side. I remember him getting very angry when we were caught playing slides in the grain store at the back of Geoff's yard. He was rightly cross about this, as, besides the hazard posed by our dirty shoes, it was also very dangerous.
Scrumping was one of the naughtiest and most adventurous pastimes that we took part in (in case you weren't familiar with this term, scrumping is a euphemism for stealing fruit).
I don't know when I first got dragged into scrumping; I suppose it was a natural extension of climbing, as well as being a handsome reward at the end of each expedition if the apples were good. We weren't allowed on any private land or orchards so we had to assess each one in terms of risk, accessibility and result. Haynes's was pretty good. Easy to reach by climbing through the hedge at the back of the phone box, there were over a dozen trees to choose from for the best apples. The only snag was that the tree branches were high enough to be easily visible from the street, and it was never very long before we were caught out.
Roger Pickering was forever chasing us out of his orchard. If he caught us up his trees he'd often stand below, fully aware that we had only one way to come down. We'd either receive a clip around the ear or he'd chase us off - on one memorable occasion half-way across the field at the back of our house. Sometimes we'd infiltrate orchards undisturbed and sit in the branches eating apples (or pears just for a change) until we were full to bursting. We'd get so bloated that it was all we could do to take one bite from the best bit of the apple before throwing the rest away.
Geoff and I roamed far and wide in our play and exploration. The boundaries of our travels were:
Illsons (or Tarrants) farm (now disused) in the south-west
Lubenham Lodge in the south
Foxton Locks in the south-east
Debdale in the east
Smeeton Hills in the north-east
Saddington Reservoir in the north
Laughton in the north-west
.....all on foot of course. Within these geographical limits we explored every single construction of any kind that we encountered - be it barn, cowshed, lean-to, farm, unoccupied house, or utility building. No corner of any wood escaped our curiosity, and every edifice had to be explored for playing potential. We soon learnt which places we could play in without being disturbed, which ones were occupied, and which ones were checked regularly enough to expose us to the risk of being caught.
We had a shock one day when we were trawling the spinney below Ashby's big field. In the middle of some bushes we stumbled across a superbly crafted den in the shape of a wigwam. It was obviously old and had been unused for some years. But how had it got there? Who could have made it if it wasn't us? We puzzled over this for ages before deciding that although it was old, it was so well-constructed that it could have been done many, many years before. We walked back into the village trying to decide which of the grown-ups could have been responsible.
The church was an endless source of fascination.
We had been inside many times for the services, so we were more interested in the other aspects of the church that might offer playing potential. Firstly, there was the bell-ringing. When I was a youngster I would often see the bell ropes hanging down in the vestibule, and watch as the adults pulled rhythmically on them to sound the bells. At that age I was too small to contribute to this activity but I could see straight away that there was fun to be had as the weight of the bells when they were being tolled pulled the ropes sharply back up into the air. It was some years before I was allowed to have a go myself, and I can still remember the excitement as the great weight of the bell hauled you into the air, sometimes as much as four or five feet.
When I was quite young, Geoff and I would manage to sneak up the vertical ladders to the bell housing in the steeple. This was both scary and exhilarating, with the drop to the church floor potentially fatal if you fell off the ladder. But once through the trap door, you could stare at the great bells amidst all the debris deposited by hundreds of nesting birds over the years.
By then we'd explored the churchyard so many times that we knew nearly all the graves by heart. We'd acknowledge the ones where we knew the deceased, stare morbidly at any fresh ones, and pity the ones where the headstones were tilting at an alarming angle or had fallen over completely. Because we never really thought about death, the actual issue of dying was something we never stopped to consider. New graves just used to appear as if by magic. But one day, a situation arose that changed that irrevocably. Andy, Geoff and I were climbing trees in Davidson's Spinney just opposite the churchyard and thinking of nothing except the usual challenge of finding a way up a tree that we hadn't previously tried before. Half-way through our games the church bells started to ring, but we didn't really thing anything of it - after all we were quite used to hearing them peal. All of a sudden the rear door of the church opened and a procession of people filed out. I hissed a warning to my companions and we all turned and stared from our perches thirty feet above the ground. None of us had ever seen a funeral before. I was surprised at seeing the rear door of the church open for the first time, shocked at the realisation of what was going on, and terrified by the intrusion our presence represented - especially if we were discovered. We froze on the branches where we were, and stayed like that for the fifteen minutes that the ceremony took to complete. Thankfully, we weren't discovered and were able to climb down afterwards, simultaneously exulted by our secret, inadvertent, espionage while sobered by the whole experience.
When I was about eleven years old, Geoff, Rod, and I decided to climb onto the church roof. I can't understand why we hadn't thought of this before. In fairness, it was a bit tricky, but, after all, we could climb just about anything that offered a handhold. So we managed to clamber up the side of the church porch and onto the sloping south side part of the main roof. As we lay there gazing down at the woods surrounding the lake, I gradually became aware of some markings scratched into the stone and lead underneath where I was perched. It was immediately obvious to me that these markings were, in fact, initials and dates. But what dates! The markings consisted of such initials as EB 1774; JC 1833; FS 1802, and many similar engravings.
The moment was one of the most profound incidents of my childhood. As I sat there I could picture in my mind's eye all those generations of Gumley children who had decided to do exactly the same thing as my pals and I and climb onto the church roof. I felt a kind of indefinable bond between me and these long-dead children, an intangible link stretching back over all those years. It was very moving to sit on the same spot that these unknown (but, somehow not unknown) children had sat on, and, perhaps unusually for someone as young as myself, feel that sense of timeless history of the village, the continuity of the generations both in the past and the future.
Perhaps, in essence, as the village gradually changes and metamorphoses over the years, the church is the village - the one permanent symbol of the entity that is Gumley.
The Trouble Makers Bottom Knocker
I began school at five years four months old - slightly later than most perhaps. There was no local school in the village and, like all of the other children of the villages nearby, we were picked up by bus and taken to the local primary school at Church Langton.
In those days the bus was one of the old Second World War models with a kind of half-snub-nosed front. The driver couldn't operate the door like his modern counterpart does with modern buses, and you had to pull a handle to slide the door backwards whether you were standing inside or out. The youngest of us weren't strong enough to do this and the oldest boy used to sort of inherit the honour of opening and closing the door. This would allow him to stand in the well of the doorstep during the journey while the rest of us were seated. This seemed very grown up to me and I regarded the current ten-year-old holder of this responsibility - Eric Ashby - with unmitigated awe.
I soon settled down at school because I'd been taught to read pretty well by old Mr Foskett who lived next door to us during the early years of my life. Furthermore, my mother never failed to make use of the mobile library van that used to visit the village each week. I'd accompany her on these occasions and spend ages going through all the shelves of books to make my selection, sitting on the floor of the van to examine my finds. So, right from an early age, I'd always had a regular supply of books to read.
From my first day at school there were new routines to get used to. At the morning break time there was free school milk. One of the pupils in our class would be designated as the milk monitor and bring small one-third of a pint bottles of milk around to each of us at our desks. I used to look forward to this and always enjoyed this little treat even though, as boys do at that age, there was often milk flicked at each other, gargled with, and sucked through our straws right down to the bottom of the bottle where the suction produced rude noises accompanied by much giggling and laughter.
We all had our own little desks with inkwells containing small pottery ink jars. Another member of the class was selected to be the ink monitor and would come round every day with a large bottle of ink and top up our ink wells so that we could use our nibbed pens. It was quite difficult to get used to these as I hadn't used one before and it was all too easy to get horrible blots and smudges all over my written work.
There were three classes, one for juniors between five and seven, one for 'middles' between seven and nine, and one for seniors between nine and eleven. Geoff and I started together in the junior class so I had a friend from the start and quickly made new ones from the cachement area of local villages surrounding Church Langton.
The playground introduced me to a whole raft of new games that I hadn't previously been exposed to in Gumley. There was added excitement to Tig and Dodging with upwards of a dozen boys rather than the few I'd been used to in Gumley. For the first time, I was introduced to marbles. I was quickly hooked as we flicked them across the surface of the playground. There was a long open drain beside the dining hall, which was an ideal marble alley for letting fly with maximum force. We all had our own collections with the biggest or most highly coloured ones being the most prized. It was great fun.
I had school dinners along with everyone else. Like most kids at my age, I wasn't particularly bothered about food; I just wanted to wolf it down and get out to play. I was a very fussy eater though and would always end up leaving something. My favourite meal was mince stew, fried bread, and mashed potatoes, with semolina and rose hip syrup for pudding. We'd mix the syrup with the semolina to turn it into a bright pink mixture. I'd hate all vegetables with a passion, with particular loathing being reserved for Swedes.
My mother would give me money for the school dinners each Monday for that week. It wasn't especially expensive but a powerful memory for me was that when it came time to collect the money, three or four children in our class couldn't afford it and used to get free school dinners. This was highly stigmatic and, although we knew instinctively that this wasn't a subject to openly tease them about, we secretly pitied them.
My own parents weren't well off. We weren't as poor as some but we had to watch our pennies pretty carefully. Each week my Dad would come home with his pay packet, divide it up, and allocate the contents in a special little compartmentalised wooden tray that had small labels for each division. He and my Mum would dutifully allocate five shillings for rent, three shillings for electric, ten shillings for food, and so on. There wasn't much left when they had finished but we got by and they ensured that we never went short of anything. A far cry nowadays from the way that I receive my salary straight into the bank, pay all my bills by direct debit, and pay for goods with a charge card. I don't even see any money half of the time!
We certainly seemed to spend a fair amount of time singing at school. We'd all have our own little singing books containing traditional British songs and ditties. Twice a week, we'd tune in to a BBC radio program especially designed to allow school classes to sing along with the broadcast. Those early songs stay with you forever, and I only have to hear 'Michael Finnegan', or 'Hearts of Oak', and I'm back in Junior School again.
The school also had a small library and I soon went through most of the books on offer. There was a special animal series written in the first person as though the reader was the animal subject of the book. At that age you could easily imagine being a wolf or a polar bear.
The summer months were obviously best for me because I'd get home from school and there would be plenty of daylight hours left to allow us to play. We didn't have homework, so I could have my tea quickly, and then I'd be off.
There were a great many games that were variations of cowboys and Indians. There were always goodies and baddies, particularly in the 'soldiers' version where we'd pretend to be English and German troops. There was also the Robin Hood version, the William Tell version, and so on. But all of them involved hiding, peering out from your hiding place to espy your friends, and, if you saw them, immediately utter a sort of 'Ksh, ksh' sound. You usually had a stick of some sort that resembled a pistol or a rifle. The former could be stuck in the top of your short trousers, but on special occasions, we'd come out fully dressed complete with toy gun and gun belt that we would have received for Christmas or a birthday. Proper toy guns even had the facility to fire caps. Caps were little paper rolls of gunpowder pellets that you could fit into the gun mechanism and, when the trigger was depressed, created a reasonably satisfying bang.
As we got older we'd venture further afield or stay out longer. The great activity was climbing trees. We climbed every tree that was climbable, and often attempted ones that weren't. In no time at all we'd climbed virtually every tree in the Spinney and turned to the other nearby woods in search of new challenges.
The Dark Spinney was situated opposite Davidson's Spinney and started where Andrews' high wall ended. Because many of the trees were pines, we soon conquered the ones that were suitable for clambering up, and turned to another diversion. A metal fence separated the wood from the road, and our new game consisted of balancing on the top rail of this fence and 'tightrope' walking along it by holding onto whatever branches overhung the fence. For the most part this wasn't too difficult but now and again we'd reach a gap where we'd have to almost 'run' on the top rail for a few yards before reaching another bush to hold on to. Great fun.
Of course, it wasn't just the trees that we loved climbing so much. Whatever game we had chosen to play, sooner or later, we managed to combine it with climbing on something. We'd climb on all the walls especially the one at the boundary of the Spinney at the top of the village. We'd climb on the telephone box; the wall at the front of Haynes's, the village hall walls; the walls at the back of people's properties; roofs; barns; outhouses; in fact, everything that we could get a grip on.
The main attraction for climbing trees at the top of The Spinney was the opportunity to build tree dens. These tree dens might consist of a very basic place to sit, i.e. just a good thick branch that one could sit astride in a fairly relaxed manner, to an elaborate plank construction with at least a solid floor or even walls and a roof. One of our favourite dens was half-way up a convenient pine opposite the Gables at the top of the Spinney and overlooked the street. It comprised two planks placed conveniently about twenty feet above ground that offered a comfortable spot to sit on. It took a great deal of effort at that age to drag the planks of wood (which we'd find on the Spinney rubbish tips, etc) up into the branches of the tree. This den that Geoff and I built overlooking the main street still exists today thirty-five years later and, if I walk by it on one of my occasional visits to the village, a quick glance at it still brings the memories flooding back.
It's difficult to exaggerate the amount of time we spent making dens generally. As soon as we found three or four trees growing next to each other, we'd mentally note the spot as a potential den site. It was particularly suitable if it had four trees which could form the corners, or, even better still, four corner trees and two others just wide enough to form a doorway. When the time came and the site had been decided on for that day, we would scour the Spinney for suitable branches before dragging them along the paths from hundreds of yards away if necessary. We'd strip the small leafy branches off the main stem of these branches; thrust three study sticks into the ground as far as we could; interweave the main stems between the upright ones to form the walls; and then poke the leafy off-shoots back through the interleaved stems to form a solid wall. With sticks acting as braces at the tree corners we had ourselves a sturdy den.
It wasn't complete without a small spy hole window on each side (you couldn't look out for attackers without a spy hole!), and a suitable branch to form a door which you could pull in after you or close if you left it for a while. We took an inordinate amount of pride in the construction of these dens so that they couldn't easily be seen by a casual passer-by, although when the leaves started drooping after a few days it was easy to spot the difference in the foliage compared to the surroundings - well it was to us anyway. So the usefulness of the den began to wane, we'd tire of it anyway, and the search would begin for a new site in which to eat our sweets or use as a base during Hide and Seek.
By the time we were nine or ten years old we were more mischievous than ever. If we were feeling particularly malicious we'd wait until cars passed by (this could take some time in Gumley), and throw things at them. We puzzled for a while about what was best to throw. Eventually, we hit on the best compromise of using sticky mud. This had the advantage of being satisfyingly yucky while not affording too much damage to the cars themselves. When we hit a car with a lump of mud, there'd be two possible reactions. The first type of driver would hear the mud hitting his car and either gawp in stupefying mime while temporarily slowing down, and then driving on. The second would actually stop and jump out to, a) see what damage had been done, and b) look for the culprits. They'd peer over The Spinney wall looking for us while we remained frozen in our den hysterical with laughter and desperately covering our mouths in an attempt to stifle any sound. In hindsight this behaviour was totally unacceptable. But at that age boys will be boys and we were no different from the rest. Mind you, we did know how far we could go and would not have risked injuring anyone.
We were good at using the tools of nature's trade as objects to play with. Holding grass between our thumbs and blowing through it as a reed produced a satisfyingly piercing sound. After five minutes we'd grow bored with that and break off large keck stems to use as pea-shooters. But these simple things were sometimes not enough, and we were always on the lookout for ways to get up to mischief.
We were drawn like a magnet to the roofs of barns and outbuildings wherever they were. We'd always find a way of clambering on to the surface of these constructions and run around on the roof shouting, yelling, and waving our arms about as if lots of people could see - although it was usually obvious that there was no-one in the vicinity. When you're a child of that age you can invent all sorts of games, like getting from a tree branch to a barn roof, or climbing from one barn to another, or jumping from roofs onto bales of straw. The permutations were endless.
Where was I? Oh yes, this chapter was supposed to be about school.
I was inevitably dead keen on the sports. Some things I was good at, some things I wasn't. I was average at cricket. We used to play 'tip and run. When it was your turn to bat there was no facing batsman and when you received your delivery, if you hit the ball, you had to run regardless, reach a line half-way down the pitch, and run back to your crease. This was fine if you'd managed to hit the ball a fair old way, but not so good if you hadn't. I well remember the awful feeling of hitting the ball six inches or so and having to set off on a futile run knowing that there could only be one outcome. For some inexplicable reason Mr Hill, the Headmaster, always kept wicket. Being the Headmaster, you would have expected him to be the umpire. It's only with hindsight that I realise that he didn't fulfil this role because there was never anything that needed umpiring. We didn't strictly adhere to the six-ball-over rule, and an LBW was unheard of. Nevertheless, I always felt somehow cheated by the whole experience as if the rules had somehow been rigged against me regardless of any potential prowess.
Football was good fun. Although we didn't play properly, by the time I'd reached Mr Hill's class, my parents had bought me the full Leicester City Football Club strip (in a small size of course). I was a big Leicester fan in those days and my Dad would take me to all the home games on the back of his motor-bike. I'd have all the accessories including scarf, bobble-hat, and wooden rattle (which my Dad had made). At the ground things were a bit different to these modern times. No matter where we ended up standing, I, and any other kids my age, would get passed down by all the blokes in front so that I could sit on the wall that surrounded the pitch. From this vantage point I could get a good view of the game even though I had my back to the pitch so I had to keep turning round (you weren't allowed to dangle your legs over the pitch side of the wall).
Anyway, all this made me dead keen on football generally and Leicester in particular and I glowed with pride as I pulled on my strip for the school football games. I was nowhere near the most talented player on the pitch but from the envious glances of the other kids, there's no doubt in my mind that I was the best dressed!
Another highlight of the school curriculum was the nature walks.
The school was ideally placed for this being situated on the outskirts of Church Langton. We'd form a long procession behind the teacher and make our way down the road out into the countryside. Apart from giving us the chance to muck about, we were at least taught about some rudimentary elements of plant life. We'd bring back leaves and flowers to study back in the classroom and learn about stamens, petals, and such like.
This part of our school curriculum unwittingly gave rise to the most harrowing incident of my junior school years. We came back from one of the nature walks clutching a rose hip. The teacher decided that it would be a good idea if all of us went out into the countryside near our homes, picked a large number of rose hips, and brought them into school so that we could make rose hip syrup.
I duly did my bit and, with borrowed basket from Mum, went down the road and filled it up (and becoming sorely prickled in the process). I arrived at the school bus stop and made a great show of my basket of rose hips. My friends smirked and jeered because, for reasons of their own, they hadn't done the same thing. Arriving at school I looked around and no-one else appeared to have brought in any rose hips. This put me in a terrible dilemma and I spent the whole of the pre-school break leaning against the playground wall trying to hide my basket behind my legs.
I always had a tendency to shyness. In this instance there was never a point in the whole day that the teacher asked for children to hand in their rose hips and I was extremely reluctant (make that terrified) to go up to her and volunteer my store of rose hips. I hid the basket under my desk. I spent the whole day in a terrible dilemma worrying whether I had the courage to approach the teacher with my basket, and, by the time the bus came to take us home, I still had my basket of rose hips. Next came the absolute worst part. I had no option but to take the basket home again. Although the hips were covered in a cloth, I was terrified that my friends would realise that I'd brought them back home with me and I knew I'd be humiliated and mortified if they discovered my guilty secret. Somehow, by keeping a low profile, I managed to avoid discovery and, as soon as we arrived back in the village, dashed off the bus and into the Spinney where I threw all the rose hips into the bushes. I can still recall the overwhelming sense of relief when I stepped back on to the village street lightened of my load. I was so traumatised by the whole affair it's taken me thirty-five years to relate the story, and, even now, one look at a rose hip when I'm out for a walk sends a chill down my spine.
School wasn't all fun, as every child knows. Worst of all was the dreaded 'nit nurse'. Legend surrounded the nit nurse. For months older boys would come round and tell us youngsters about what she did to you. They made it graphically clear that she was going to examine your privates and do all sorts of horrible embarrassing things to you.
I'll never forget when the time came around for my first session. The nurse commandeered one end of the school corridor and erected a blanket screen half-way down. One by one we had to undress and enter the inner screened section. I squirmed with embarrassment as she looked at my private parts - a woman touching it! Aaaargh!
Next she went through our hair looking for nits (whatever they were), checking our eyes and ears, and so on. After the ordeal we were allowed to get dressed and went outside to play. This is where the fun started. We soon realised that after all the boys had had their turn with the nurse, it was time for the girls to do the same. It was obvious that the girls must be going through the same process as ourselves and we would edge up to the corridor windows trying to peek in. We weren't quite tall enough to see anything and had to resort to jumping up at the window in an effort to obtain a glimpse of bare girls. I remember doing this only to be confronted by the face of the nurse managing to look simultaneously horrified and angry. In no time at all we were running off to the far side of the playground to make ourselves scarce.
The end of break times were always signalled by one of the teachers appearing and ringing loudly on a large brass handbell. We'd have to stop running around and finish the various dodging, pushing, and wrestling stuff. Sometimes we'd have pretend fights - nothing serious just a bit of cuffing and kids tricks. In those days you never kicked anyone as this was considered unfair. If you tried it you'd be taunted with cries of 'Only donkeys' kick'.
But athletics was my forte, although while I was good at running and jumping, Geoff was a better thrower of the cricket ball. My early Schools sports days were spent trying to do my best at the various events that comprised the day's activities. I soon got used to the introduction of the Sack Race into the schedule. We would all choose a sack and race towards the finish line after the command to 'go'. There were two basic techniques; either you hopped, or you tried to run in the sack. Me, I was a runner in the early years. I soon worked out though that you inevitably fell over your own two feet trying to do this and by the time I was in the senior class, had resorted to the hopping technique.
The second bizarre event was the Egg-and Spoon race. What on earth anyone hoped to prove by this God only knows. It was sort of absurd charade where you were given an egg and had to balance it on a spoon while running up the track. I mean, what's the point?
Three thoughts occur now. Where did they keep all those sacks all year so that they could bring them out on a single day in June, and were they reserved exclusively for Sports day? Was there any advantage to be gained by the choice of sack? Who boiled the two dozen or so eggs and what happened to them afterwards?
Eventually, in my last year at the school, I managed to win the Victor Ludorum on the school sports day by virtue of my jumping and running. Strangely, the Victrix Ludorum was gained by Jennifer Dyer - the only girl who would eventually go on to the local Grammar School with me.
After school we'd be out in the fields and woods. As we ranged around the village looking for new interests we'd spot anything new taking place and immediately explore its playing potential.
One day, amidst great excitement, we discovered that they were beginning to build a sewerage plant two fields below Haynes' house. We watched the work proceed over a period of weeks alternatively fascinated and revolted by what was going on. Obviously the very subject matter was the object of schoolboy laughter, disgust and derision. Yet, at the same time, we were keenly interested in the workings of the plant and possibilities of getting up to mischief.
So we ended up climbing up and down the inspection tunnels, staring with morbid fascination the contents of the open pipes, and, best of all, jumping the pipes. This latter activity was tremendously popular. As part of the sewerage workings, a long metal pole slowly rotated over a bed of gravel while disgorging a trickle of liquid. We instinctively knew the liquid was revolting while not quite understanding the significance of the pole and the gravel. But it was an excellent chance to show our agility by waiting for the pole to come round and then jumping over it. What was nice was that two of you could play together by jumping over the pole simultaneously. If you stumbled you were in big trouble because, besides getting your clothes dirty, if you didn't get up in time you'd be hit by the pole on its next circuit.
I've digressed again. Teaching in schools was carried out in the old-fashioned way in those days. The first, and most basic lesson we were taught was the times-tables. The tables would go up on the blackboard and we would chant them through as a whole class. It wasn't really difficult and we soon got to know them by heart, which I've always found incredibly useful in later life.
Besides the tables we had lots of writing to do; we listened to stories told by the teacher; made models and shapes from paper and cardboard; and took part in lots of sports and physical activities. One of these was dancing - which all the boys hated. The reason for this was simple - we had to hold hands with the girls. Ugh! The dancing took the form of variations on barn dancing with either the teacher playing the piano or a record-player to provide accompaniment.
I soon learned that there was plenty of discipline. For minor offences we were banished to stand in the corner. Other misdemeanours merited a long spell doing 'lines' (writing out the same sentence over and over again). But, worst of all, as you got older you could easily become a candidate for Mr Hill's TMBK. I was later to discover that this stood for Trouble-Maker's Bottom Knocker. It consisted of a yellow plastic tennis racket. This would be used by Mr Hill to smack pupils for any serious or repeated offence - such as fighting. Often the threat of the TMBK was enough to put you off mischief, especially as boys who were at the receiving end were only too willing to explain to youngsters like me how painful it was. I think I managed to survive until I was about nine years old before I had my first dose.
Junior School provided me with many new experiences. Among these was my first trip on the school bus to the Market Harborough Swimming Baths. The swimming pool was an entirely new phenomenon to me and I was terrified of the water. I spent months trying to cling to the bars at the side of the pool to avoid having to put my head under the water or try and swim. Unfortunately for me and the rest of my schoolmates a horrible swimming pool attendant used to walk around the side of the pool and put his foot on our head to force us under the water. I suppose it was doing us good but it didn't feel like it at the time.
We had to change two to a changing cubicle, which seemed perfectly reasonable then but appears to be slightly bizarre in retrospect. I remember having to share a cubicle with Eric Ashby. Anyway, by the time I left junior school I could at least swim a length of the pool that was, admittedly, the object of the exercise.
The last day of the school term was always a special day for us. On these occasions we were allowed to bring in toys while teachers attended to some mysterious task that I never quite fathomed out. We were only able to bring in one toy so we inevitably brought in our most prized possession. These particular toys seem pretty tame by today's standard but they were mightily exciting for us. While I initially bought in models or lego and suchlike, I'll never forget the day when Carl Raczel bought an electronic toy! It was a model tank powered by batteries that enabled the thing to display its flashing lights and to make funny electric noises. The rest of us kids were as jealous as hell.
An end of term meant that we had holidays to look forward to. Naturally, at that age, we were interested in any mechanised form of playing even though the majority of our time was spent on foot playing around the village and its outskirts. My parents bought me my first bike on my seventh birthday, and, even though it was second-hand, it was a big thrill for me. It was painted in a rather perverse combination of black and blue but I didn't really care because I couldn't even ride a bike! But, in no time at all, my Dad had got me going on it down the garden path and I was off under my own steam.
So I was up and down the village paths and all over the place with my new-found freedom. Within a year or two I was also presented with a second-hand scooter. By scooter, I mean one of those with two small wheels in line with each other with a piece of wood to stand on in-between while you pushed yourself along the pavement with your other foot. The scooter was fun going downhill but not so good on the level and uphill and it never won my affection in the same way that my bike did. Besides, none of my friends owned scooters and there wasn't much fun in playing together unless you both had the same equipment.
In term time we nearly always had time to play in the village hall yard before the school bus arrived. Sometimes this was normal ball games like football but without teams and just a goalie with all the rest of us trying to score. One of the disadvantages of this though was that the ball would invariably disappear over all the surrounding walls. The Westons on the right were the ones most often to suffer, although the two old ladies couldn't come out fast enough to catch us if we quickly dashed into their garden to retrieve the ball.
The wall on the right didn't present much of a problem since we were always climbing on it anyway because it backed onto what is now the Old Engine House. This was an old building that used to supply Gumley Hall with gas, but which had fallen into disuse. Anyway, the real problem was across the road where Mr Hopwell tended his garden with pride and joy. The last thing he wanted was balls landing amongst his plants and vegetables, and having boys trampling over them to get their ball back. We'd stand at his gate daring each other to go in and retrieve the ball before he spotted it. Sometimes we weren't quick enough and he'd confiscate the ball, although, to be fair, he'd usually let us have it back on the following day.
There were a variety of other games to be played though. The one I dreaded most was Jacobob. This involved half of us bending down and forming a single connecting line of genuflecting bodies - a bit like a Rugby scrum but with all the players in a column. The boy at the front of the line would grip the wall and each succeeding boy would grab their hips and put their head between the legs of the boy in front. The rest of the group would stand twenty yards behind the bent over line and then, one by one, run forward and leap as far as they could over the others' backs and toward the front of the row.
The problem with this game was that it was very unfair to the smaller boys like me and much more fun for the older ones. If you're only seven years old, having an eleven-year-old jump on your back was no fun. Any Seabrook used to exploit our discomfort to its full extent by jumping as high as he could and landing on us with a load roar. We would try and stay on our feet if we could, although our legs would buckle alarmingly and sometimes give way.
Of course, not all games were as rough as this. If it was wet we'd try and cram in the porch and perhaps play Jacks. Jacks was a game that required five small, metal, dice-like objects. The theme of the game was to balance one of them on the back of your hand, throw it up in the air, grab one of the remaining Jacks from the ground, catch the airborn jack as it was falling, and finish with two jacks in the hand. If you could do this with one jack you could then attempt to do it with two, and then with three, and so on. Trying to balance five jacks on the back of your hand, throw them up, and catch them was well-nigh impossible.
It sounds tame by today's standards but, like a lot of games in those days, it was simple but entertaining. We didn't need the sophistication of some of today's childrens' activities, and I'm inclined to believe that our boredom and excitement threshold was higher.
Four events marked my last year at junior school.
Firstly, I had the opportunity to stand at the school bus door and open and close it - just like I'd seen Eric do six years earlier. I felt very grown up when I did this.
Secondly, Rod turned up at school in long trousers! No-one had ever contemplated such outrageous behaviour. Geoff and I were flabbergasted (and somewhat jealous). It didn't matter whether it was summer or winter, children at that age always wore short trousers. Once I'd got over the initial shock, I had to pester my Mum for a pair too, although I don't think I ever succeeded in such hallowed ownership until I went to senior school.
Thirdly, Andy Seabrook boarded the school bus wearing Winckle Pickers! This was real shock to me, and an endless source of fascination. I couldn't take my eyes off this symbol of the teddy-boy era. The shoes had such long pointed toes that I'm sure you could have opened a bottle of beer with them.
Fourthly, I passed my eleven plus. Fair enough, you might think but there were only four of us passed from the whole class, and it meant that I would be going to a different secondary school to Rod and Geoff. Moreover, I knew there'd be teasing and resentment - I'll never forget Rod telling me how I'd get loads of homework! It was so divisive that one of the four of us dropped out of going to the local grammar school without even trying it - surely a victim of peer pressure at its worst
Victor Ludorum at the Sports Day - with Jennifer Dyer as Vitrix Ldorum
Mr Hill, the Headmaster, between us.
Customs and plenty of exercise
There were two main sources of the village customs of the day.
The first of these was the church. From early childhood were encouraged, perhaps rather forcefully, to attend church services once a week. Even then there weren't that many people in the village who were regular worshippers, but my mother was one of them and I had duly to accompany her to the service.
It was extremely boring for children at that age and we'd spend ages looking around, kneeling down and standing up at the right moments, gazing at the other churchgoers, and immediately homing in on anyone entering the church in an attempt to relieve the tedium. I suppose we did learn lots of hymns as a result of it all, and the tunes are just as familiar to me today as they ever were. We'd dutifully chant the Lord's Prayer (like we had to at school) and fidget during the sermon. At the end of it all we'd rush outside to play only to be told to have to go home and get changed first because we'd gone to church in our best clothes.
We did become familiar with the vicar (and how many children can say that now?), and he knew us all by name. But I'm afraid the thing that sticks in my mind more than anything else was that the vicar, Reverend Alloway, was missing the tip of one of his fingers. Such is the morbidity of childhood.
I do recollect that at the end of every summer they'd be a Harvest Festival in the church. This involved those of us who were regular worshippers taking various offerings up to the church as a prelude to a special service. I'd march up the street carrying, vegetables, fruit and flowers that we'd use to decorate the interior of the church. To this day I've never worked out what happened to all this food afterwards.
But, even more than the church, the Women's Institute was the driving force behind village activity.
They met once a month and my mother was, and is, one of the stalwarts. Apart from these regular meetings they would also organise the annual Flower Show and the Christmas Party, both events that required my mandatory participation.
For the former, there was always a children's section - as there is today - and almost all the village parents insisted that their children take part. This annual competition usually consisted of either constructing something from plastercine, or making some other kind of model. That actual Flower Show took the customary form whereby the village people demonstrating their plantsmanship or domestic skills. There were prizes for the best vegetables in virtually all categories, flower arrangements galore, and opportunities for the ladies to show of the prowess at jam-making and the production of chutneys, cakes, and all sorts of other comestibles. The men took part as well in all sections except the cookery, although Mr Hopwell won every year so I don't know why they bothered.
On the day of the show itself there would be various stalls outside where you could try your luck at various games for a penny or two, as well as raffles, tombola, and the legendary games that my father had constructed especially for the show. These usually consisted of either 'Devil Among The Tailors', or a long sloping wooden board which you could aim ping-pong balls down in the hope of them trickling into various slots marked 'two pence, 'one pence', 'nothing', and so on. It was all very naive an innocent.
However, one tradition that was never quite as popular with me, was children's outside games such as the fancy-dress competition. This wasn't optional you understand and we'd all troop along at the appointed time wearing our cowboy outfits, Robin Hood costumes, or encased in some kind of painted cardboard. I always felt slightly stupid, but I suppose, in hindsight, it didn't do harm.
Other traditions were much more fun. Top amongst these was Bonfire Night.
We'd start collecting for our bonfire weeks before the actual day. Usually the fire would be sited either on Ashby's land or Seabrook's land. It never seemed to be in the same place two years running, and I remember it taking place in the field behind the middle cottages (the one at the end of the footpath opposite the phone box), Ashby's orchard, down the lane behind Seabrook's farm on the edge of the Nut Spinney, and in the field at the back of Home farm (Geoff's place).
The amount of effort we'd put in to build the bonfire was unbelievable. At this time of the year they'd be hardly any daylight after school so most of our work took place at weekends. We'd raid the woods for all loose branches and logs we could find. I remember being part of a line of half-a-dozen of us all pulling large branches behind us, all dragging the way from the Spinney, across the road, and up the lane to Ashby's field. We'd also scrounge all sorts of waste from various sources, and very rarely resorted to any kind of assistance from adults. We'd go around with a barrow to collect newspapers from everyone in the village who would be willing to contribute, and throw on all sorts of junk. The resulting bonfire would be enormous, and the sense of anticipation unbearable.
Come the night, we'd be at the bonfire with our fireworks and ready to watch one of the adults arrive to set it alight. It was a far cry from some of today's organised events. We just crowded around trying to get as near to the fire as we could bear given the tremendous heat generated. No formal fireworks display was ever organised; everyone just lit their own fireworks whenever they felt like it, although Stanley Edwards and one or two other adults would sometimes bring a large box of fireworks to enhance the excitement.
Prior to the event we'd get up to very naughty tricks. As boys we weren't the least bit interested in 'pretty' fireworks and were saved all our enthusiasm for 'bangers'. So we'd let the bangers off in the weeks and days before the big event even though we knew we shouldn't do. We'd soon get fed up with just lighting them in the street or the Spinney, and begin to invent ingenious uses for them such as lighting them and placing them under empty tin cans. The resulting explosion and launch of the can was most satisfactory. So were the ones we put in cracks in the wall, up car exhaust pipes, inside fruit, in the telephone box, in tree trunks, up the village pump, in bushes, and anywhere else we could think of.
When we were a bit older, we'd discovered that bangers were pretty tame. Crow-scraps gave off a far louder bang. These were small paper fireworks attached a foot apart along a piece of rope. The rope itself was designed to smoulder slowly and let off the scarers at intervals. We would forever be invading Ashby's and Geoff's dad's storerooms to steal these and use them as 'super' bangers. We'd be caught in a dilemma each time as we tried to decide how many we could take before the farmer would notice that there were some missing. Whatever we took was certainly put to good use as we designed ever more potent and ingenious explosions.
But the best bit for Geoff and I would be the day after Bonfire Night. As soon as we could we'd be up at the site of the bonfire to collect all the spent fireworks that were lying around. We'd examine each one closely for any signs of unspent gunpowder. If we found one in this state we'd gleefully bring it back to a spot we'd selected and empty the gunpowder into a little mound. When we'd succeeded in gathering enough to create a satisfying explosion we'd stand a few feet away and throw lighted matches at the spot until we ignited the whole pile. Great fun.
The winter months came and the Christmas Party was another matter altogether. Overall, it was run by a domineering (that's what it felt like to me) lady called Mrs Jesson. I maintained very ambivalent views of this annual ritual. On the one hand my friends and I could be guaranteed nice food and a present; on the other, we had to play stupid games. And when I say stupid, I mean stupid. What sort of warped mind ever devised Musical Chairs? It seems to me that the whole object of the game is some kind or ritual humiliation. What's worse than the slow torture of waiting until the inevitable time that you want to sit down but you are unable to do so? It's just so embarrassing when you become the one with nowhere to sit. What kind of people get pleasure from this?
Just to make the atmosphere of whole event worse, there seemed to me to be this indefinable tension in the air because, hanging from a beam above us, and in plain view, was the dreaded mistletoe. You'd catch children taking furtive glances at it throughout the proceedings, knowing, almost sub-consciously, that at some point they would be asked to kiss someone under it.
For some strange reason that I cannot fathom, adults appear to get a kick out of seeing little children on the opposite sex kiss each other (well, within reason!). They 'ooh' and 'aah' while the kids involved are squirming with embarrassment. I can't remember what game or tradition meant that I had to kiss Susan Pickering, Lynda Martin, or whoever, and I'm sure that the reason that I don't remember is that my subconscious mind has tried hard to blot it out. Unfortunately, it's only half-succeeded.
Dancing took place at regular intervals throughout the proceedings and the women were wonderfully organised as usual with their food and their teas, but throughout the evening there would always be the ever-present Mrs Jesson urging us on into the next game despite our obvious reluctance.
In some years, a week or two before Christmas we'd go around the village singing carols. This was a side-effect of our Sunday School gatherings.
I've already mentioned that I was a regular churchgoer (even if it wasn't my initiative). By the time I was about ten, 'they' had decided that we'd have a church choir, and I was to be in it. I didn't mind at first because I quite enjoyed singing really but I did find it hard to take seriously. Rod, Geoff, and I were forever mucking about and being told off for it.
One day we turned up to choir practice to discover a major surprise waiting for us. Someone had decided to buy us all choir outfits, and we had to stand around while all our measurements were taken. A fortnight later we arrived for choir practice to find that the outfits had been delivered. They consisted of funny looking smocks for the boys and even funnier looking smockettes for the girls. We tried them on and all of us fell about laughing at the incongruity of our appearance. Nevertheless, we dutifully wore them to the next Sunday service, and sang as best we could. I don't think this lasted for more than a year or two. I suspect there were two reasons for this: some of the choir members were less than melodious in some respects, and we all grew out of the uniforms.
Still, as I said, we did manage one or two Christmas's where we went 'proper' carolling, even though we didn't wear the outfits because we would have been freezing cold. The most memorable part of the tour was walking across the field behind the church to the Colonel's house. When we got there he seemed genuinely surprised and pleased to see us. We sang some hymns for him and Mrs Murray-Smith and he rustled up mince pies and drinks. It was quite strange for me because it was one of the only two occasions when I ever saw the inside of a house that was such a significant landmark within the village.
The other occasion was when I went around carolling again but this time playing the cornet as part of a small delegation from Market Harborough Town Band. I had joined the band at nine years old and, a year later, David Allen began coming along too. Even my sister joined eventually. Playing with the band - and later with the Leicestershire Schools Orchestra - was a hugely significant and enjoyable part of my childhood but I've not included references to it here, as I've previously written about this subject in another of my little essays.
But because Dave, Barbara, and I gave the band a Gumley connection, we did our bit and half-a-dozen of us would play carols around the village whilst simultaneously freezing our backsides off. The instruments would be stone cold, and even with gloves on, we'd still have to put our lips to a frozen mouthpiece. Still, I suppose I'd have to concede that it was all in a good cause.
Geoff up the tree; Dave with the cap; me with the woolly hat!
Eggs but no chickens
As my friends and I grew a little older our games became a little more daring, and even a little more naughty. No, that's not quite right; I think I mean a little more dangerous.
For instance, while once we were happy to hide in keck dens in the Spinney and pretend to shoot each other with our gun-shaped sticks while uttering our immortal 'ksh-ksh' sounds, we'd now got a bit past that stage. We began to learn how to make proper bows and arrows. I suppose someone must have shown us how to do so but I can't remember it being a specific demonstration - more of a gradual learning process. But learn we did, soon acquiring country knowledge that had been passed down through the ages. We learned that hazel trees made the best bows, while most other trees were completely unsuitable - and would either simply break or refuse to bed at all. Legend had it that yew was supposed to be good and we tried it out a few times but without really taking to it. Elder looked like it would work but never did.
We knew that the Nut Spinney behind Seabrook's farm contained the best hazel trees (you would never have guessed), and so we'd march down to it and make our selection. We'd look for something about five feet long, fairly straight and thick enough for us to break off. The sapling had to be broken off because firstly we didn't have a saw, and secondly, by leaving a ragged broken bit at each end we'd have the right conditions for pulling the string over the breakage to anchor it. For string we'd usually have to use binder twine (string used from baling machines). This was all right but a bit thick to be ideal. Still it used to work well enough for our purposes, and as soon as we'd broken off a few two-and-a half foot smaller saplings for arrows, we'd be ready to go.
So off we went everywhere firing at anything and everything. One of us would say 'I bet you can't hit that tree', and we'd loose off a couple of arrows each until we managed it. Then it would be off to a field to see who could fire the furthest; then shooting at telegraph poles; bales of hay (these were good); open barn windows and doors; and always birds of any type if we had a chance. After a while the bow would go slack and we'd re-tension it by wrapping the string around the top end again, but if it began to lose it's power we'd start all over again by breaking off another branch and creating a new weapon. We'd easily be able to shoot an arrow a hundred feet or so and spent hours collecting enough arrows to avoid having to constantly re-visit the Nut Spinney for fresh supplies.
Back in the Spinney we'd be more adventurous. Our dens became more sophisticated and we'd spend hours making traps. My favourite was digging a hole on the Spinney path, covering it with sticks and leaves to blend in with the surroundings (I suppose we must have been inspired by the Tarzan films). Unfortunately I never managed to get more than a foot or so down before I'd hit all sorts of roots and have to settle for a mini-trap. I'd carefully cover it over and spend ages making sure it couldn't be seen from any angle. I'd then wait in the bushes for someone to come along and fall into it - Geoff and I giggling to ourselves at the though of the outrage of the unsuspecting victim. Sometimes we'd go to all the trouble of fetching water from the lake in old tin cans so that the object of our mischeviousness would also get a wet foot.
The problem was that no-one came along the path very often. After a while we'd give up waiting and go and play some other game. The next day though, it would be a high priority for me to check the traps, and when I found one 'sprung' I'd be in agony trying to guess who it might have been, with my imagination working overtime as I thought of the shock that they'd had. It was the most delicious fantasy. Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly when I think back to it, no-one ever did admit to us that they'd fallen into one of our traps.
Rope swings were good fun. My Dad used to make them in the field at the back of our house. This was great entertainment and we'd push each other backwards and forwards, or twist ourselves round and round before suddenly letting go so that we spun violently in a circle. But we soon found this a bit limiting not least because the field was flat. So instead we'd go to the Spinney and find a tree that was on an angle - and that also had branches at convenient heights - so that we could launch ourselves from the trunk. This could be quite scary if we found a big enough tree. Geoff usually managed to come up with the rope from his father's farm, and we were lucky to have this source of supply for all sort of useful items.
One game was definitely not popular with my Mum. A steep slope separated the Spinney from the Nut Spinney. This had to be traversed carefully no matter what the conditions were because it was all too easy to lose your footing. But if the weather was wet it made a great slide.
Sometimes nearly a dozen children (that's all the children there were in the village) would gather at the slope and we'd gather together all sorts of objects to make mud sledges. We'd take it in turns to slide down using old car seats, planks of wood, and even squares of old lino. This was great fun but it goes without saying that now and again we'd come off, and become covered in mud. On one memorable occasion I got so muddy and excited that I abandoned the various sliding devices and just went down on my backside, my front, or my back. Eventually I returned home completely covered from heads to toe in mud and my mother was not best pleased as you can imagine.
It was about this time - when I was nine years old - that I became aware of the pastime of collecting birdís eggs. The older boys showed Geoff and I eggs that they'd taken from nests and one or two boys had a little collection of a dozen or so different eggs.
And so Geoff and I took up the challenge and, in no time at all, it had completely taken over our playing time. In the summer holidays of 1962 I would estimate that we spent three-quarters of all of our available free time in an ever-increasing search for birds eggs. We started by looking casually in the Spinney for a nest or two and in no tome at all we'd come across a blackbirds nest and took one egg each to keep. Andy Seabrook had shown us how to 'blow' an egg and we rushed back to Geoff's house to try it ourselves.
'Blowing an egg' meant pricking a hole in each end of the egg with a pin and, by putting your mouth to the top hole, you could use air pressure to force the contents of the egg from the bottom hole. This was a tricky process. Sometimes you could break or ruin the egg completely. On other occasions, the yolk would be too highly developed and you'd have to make a rather large hole to get the contents out - which rather spoiled it. The reason for all this palaver was that if you didn't remove the contents of the egg it was inclined to go rotten.
What started as a hobby became almost an obsession. In no time at all we'd inspected all the bushes and trees of the Spinney and begun to examine the hedges around about. We'd walk slowly along the hedge peering amongst the branches to try and spot any nests. If we found one, we'd attempt to reach it to see if it was occupied. This often involved us becoming terribly prickled if it was a hawthorn hedge. It was worse if it was a tall hedge and we couldn't reach high enough. This would present us with a terrible dilemma, and we'd have to judge from the appearance of the nest whether or not it was worth the awful pain to get to it, often having to climb inside the hedge and use our coats over our hands to try and minimise the damage to our fingers.
The tall trees were a completely different kind of challenge. We'd have to resort to some very dangerous feats of climbing to reach twenty, thirty, or fifty feet above the ground. It was a wonder we didn't kill ourselves. Hours were spent trying to devise different ways of getting to the tops of oak, ash, and pine trees. The Jackdaws' nests in the trees in the field at the back of the Spinney were particularly troublesome, as was virtually any Crow's nest.
Back at home I'd place my latest treasure on a bed of cotton wool in a cardboard box. My first eggs were all the common ones: Blackbird, Missel Thrush, House Sparrow, Starling, Wood Pigeon, Magpie, and so on. All the boys in the village had a similar store of eggs and we became very competitive to see who could amass the best and biggest collection.
Mine grew and grew over a number of years until I grew out of the habit at around fifteen years old. By the time I stopped I had the best part of a hundred eggs. Some on them were quite rare, but unfortunately, also quite smelly. As soon as you took the lid off the various boxes the pong would hit you forcibly even though I'd blown virtually all the eggs.
It all sounds a bit shocking nowadays. But at the time we saw absolutely no harm in it whatsoever, and just looked on it as part of our heritage as country lads. What's more, it's almost impossible to convey to kids now how much time and effort we devoted to this pastime. Because we derived so much pleasure from it, we roamed far and wide for miles around the village. We knew every hedge, every wood, and every tree. We knew where the best woods were, the best bushes, and which nests were laggies (laggies were last year's nests). We'd climb every tree possible if we could see a hole in the trunk, wade into rivers and streams if we saw a hole in the bank, and search fields for pheasants and partridge nests. It was a ceaseless endeavour.
We learned which eggs were from which species of bird, and how to spot cuckoos eggs. We made calculations about how many eggs we could take if there weren't many in the nest (we never took them all), and learnt to distinguish the odd mutation (which happened quite often). We knew which birds laid their eggs in early spring and that we'd have to wait for summer for the Swallows and House Martins.
One day my Dad gave us a big helping hand. After seeing me come home stung and prickled all over from climbing through hedges, he invented a 'seebackscope' for me. This ingenious device was basically a mirror bound tightly to a six foot metal pole. Using this allowed me to hoist the pole upwards into a hedge and examine the contents of a bird's nest without having to try and tackle an impossibly thorny hedge. Geoff couldn't believe it when I first showed it to him, but he was more than happy for me to bring it along on our expeditions, and it certainly saved us from many prickly situations.
As a country child, if it snowed, winter time was very special. We had marvellous fun playing in these conditions, and it tended to inspire all the village children to come together to exploit the opportunities to have fun.
Sledging was the obvious eagerly-awaited activity. My first memory of this was finding myself in the field between Ashby's big field and Seabrook's orchard. It was the field that contained the Conker Tree but I don't know if it had a specific name.
A steep slope covered with snow brought out half a dozen sledges manned by all the village children. I didn't have my own sledge at this stage but there were lots to choose from as the older boys had brought theirs. My first ever sledging run was on Eric's long wooden sledge with four of us packed together on the seat and Eric himself standing up at the back holding onto the rope (the rope was meant for pulling the sledge back up the slope afterwards; you couldn't steer with it).
It was great fun and over the nest two or three years we explored every field around the village to determine which were the best slopes. The field behind the Spinney was a good one but there were a number of rabbit holes scattered throughout the slope (as well as the odd tree stump) which meant the sledge could be stopped dead in the snow and we would fly head-first through the air to land in a heap ten feet further on. The fun was such that despite being almost numb with cold, we never tired of our games. We wore gloves, coats, and wellies but still became soaked through, and frozen to the core.
But we certainly looked forward to the first fall of snow every winter. Especially, the winter of nineteen-sixty-three.
I'm sure that the people at the Meteorological Office can give you all the statistics about the winter of this year (perhaps the worst, or one of the one or two worst, this century). But I'm sure that people who lived through it could just as easily recall the havoc that it created. It seemed to snow for days on end and we were soon surrounded by huge snowdrifts and completely cut off from the outside world. Cars couldn't get in and out of the village and even the tractors could get through. I was too young to remember how long this went on for but I know that not only were we off school for ages, but the huge snow drifts represented a fantastic opportunity to play new games.
Apart from the obligatory snowball fights, there were great opportunities to create 'giant snowballs'. These were the kind that kids still make today by rolling a small snowball over and over to make a huge round mass. But we had a particular advantage because we could start the ball on steep hill and by the time it reached the bottom it would be massive and far bigger than we could have managed on the flat. Thank God I was born in a village surrounded by hills.
The lake was frown solid to such an extent that it seemed like half the village turned out to skate on it. When I say skate I mean slide on one's shoes, on sledges, and bits of line. No-one actually had any proper ice skates.
The deepest snowdrifts were just below our house where the wind coming off Andrews' big field had whipped the snow into huge sculptured mounds many feet high. Dave Allen and I passed many a happy hour making a network of tunnels that we could crawl into, and snow holes where we could pretend to be Eskimos in igloos. The days seemed to drift by (if you'll excuse the pun) as we wandered around the Spinney and other woods marvelling at the transformation of the landscape.
I was fascinated by tracks in the snow. If I came across fresh footprints as I walked through the Spinney I would become desperate to find out who had made them. So I'd either have to trace them back to their source or follow them to see where they went. But no matter how many times I tried I never seemed to succeed. I became especially frustrated if it was early in the day after an overnight snowfall and I was sure that I'd be the first person to tread the virgin snow. To come across other footprints in these circumstances drove me mad. Who else would have walked across the field at the back of our house at eight o'clock in the morning?
I was also keen on animal tracks and tried hard to work out which tracks belonged to which animal. I at least became able to distinguish between dogs, cats, sheep, cattle, and so on.
By this time I had implored my Dad to build me my own sledge and he had duly obliged - being pretty good at making things.
A momentary digression. Will my parents be the last of a generation that had to really make and mend things? When money is short, they had to make the best of it, darning socks, making clothes, building shelves, saving buttons, repairing shoes, and all the rest of it. Nowadays it's just easier to throw things away and to go and buy new ones. There are specialists still making or restoring hand-crafted items of course, but your average member of the public must have lost a whole range of handicraft skills over a generation or two.
So I'd set off up the street pulling my sledge and togged out from head to toe in cap, gloves, wellies and woolly hat to call for Geoff and Rod. Together we'd decide on a traditional sledging spot or go further afield to see what new runs we could discover. What looked like a good spot in summer - because it appeared to be a steep gradient - often turned out to be not so well suited when the snow covered the ground. Conversely, sometimes we'd happen upon a field that we hadn't considered before which, it transpired would be a perfect sledging run.
But more often than not, all the village children would gather at the hill behind the Spinney because it wasn't all that far to travel and we knew that most of us would be there, including some older children. People coming without a sledge would make do with whatever we could get our hands on in an attempt to complete the journey from the Spinney edge to the bottom of the slope. Pieces of lino were a good substitute if you hadn't got the real thing but almost anything that was flat would do. Rod's sledge was the envy of all of us because he had brass runners on the bottom of it and it was consequently swifter than all the others were.
Sledging was an important and significant pastime for us because it was one of those activities that brought children of all ages together as well as the odd adult or two. These group activities marked a sense of community and, in a sort of subconscious but profound way, defined part of village life. Children like myself played all sorts of games with other children of the same age, but these were essentially games for two or three, such as egg-collecting.
So sledging brought out everyone in a common cause to participate in a bit of fun and adventure. Bonfire night fell fairly and squarely into this same category. Now and again, for no particular reason, nearly everyone would happen to congregate together - perhaps during the harvest - but the only two events that could be guaranteed to bring everyone out were sledging or Bonfire Night.
In the bad winters road traffic had major problems getting into the village because, whatever direction you approached from, you had to negotiate a steep hill. Quite often the school bus would be unable to make it into the village, and we'd rejoice and go home and get changed to go out and play. Now and again, we'd actually conspire to make it even worse for the bus by waiting until the evening before pouring water on the road approaching the village just below our house. Overnight the water would turn into sheet ice and no ordinary vehicle could get through. Whenever it became that bad the farmers would turn out with their tractors to try and force a way through or rescue any stranded cars stuck half-way up the hill.
Travelling far and wide on our birds nesting expeditions meant that we became aware of just about every landmark within a couple of miles in all directions. It was following the canal at the bottom of Andrews' big field that led us to Foxton Locks.
The Locks were very different in those days with about 10% of the visitors it gets nowadays. There was no car park, pub, and general grocery store. Instead, it was nicely run-down, dangerous, and slightly intimidating to youngsters. We could creep along dark tunnels near the old boatlift workings, run across the little lock bridges, and explore all the canal ponds. We heard all sorts of grisly tales about people who had fallen into the locks and been swept down the canal systems to their death, which obviously made it all the more thrilling to be playing there. For a change, sometimes we'd help the boat owners open and close the lock gates and received a few pence for our efforts.
Our other big water-based attraction lay in the opposite direction to the north of the village. Saddington Reservoir was, and is, a fine piece of water - a good half-a-mile from end-to-end. Although we couldn't take too many liberties when playing there (because it was used by the local boating cub), we still managed to play in the tributaries, trying to build dams or bomb bits of wood from bridges.
In 1965 they demolished Gumley Hall. We weren't that bothered about the building but we were fascinated by the demolition, especially the giant crane that swung a ball and cylinder at the fabric of the building to bring it crashing to the ground. Nowadays I'd be aghast at the destruction of such a fine piece of architecture, but I didn't appreciate it at that age, and there was no listed building scheme in place to prevent it.
But before it was relegated to history I do remember two particular incidents. The first was something I'd never heard of before called a 'Hunt Ball'. It was to be the last one in the Hall and I remember the feverish preparations, and, because it took place in a light summer evening, I was still out playing when the guests arriving. Once it had started Geoff and I were able to peer in at the windows before being told off and chased away.
Just before the demolition started the Hall lay empty - which was just too good an opportunity to pass by. So Geoff and I scrambled up the outside fire escape on the stables side of the building and levered up a window to gain entry. We found ourselves in a small room, a bedroom of some sort, and from there we briefly explored parts of the Hall. To be honest we didn't go very far because it was dark inside and very spooky. Not that we were scared of course.
Instead, in the room, we found the remnants of the possessions of one of the Davidson boys. Although most of it was junk, we stumbled on a cupboard full of small metal balls of various sizes. Although we didn't know what they were, this was treasure indeed (being perfect ammo for slings and catapults) and we stuffed all our pockets with as many as we could take before scrambling back down the ladder. It was a week before Andy spotted us playing with them and informed us that they were, in actual fact, assorted ball-bearings.
Village children in the hall:
Susan Pickering; Geoff; Rod (back row)
Dave; me (middle)
George; Barbara; Linda (front)
Jim outside Gumley Hall as it was being demolished.
The threepenny bit scandal
Like most people, I have vague awareness of early life at home interspersed with one or two vivid images that stay with you forever. No-one can remember everything that took place at five years old, but from that age onwards a few family traditions begin to surface. There are misty recollections of chickens in the garden, my Mum plucking them (after they'd been killed!), and tin baths.
Like many folk in those days we didn't have an inside bathroom and toilet, and this latter convenience was in an outhouse half-way down the garden. As a toddler my parents would take me down to the toilet and take care of me but, between being a toddler and starting school I had to learn to go by myself.
It was two or three years later before we had an internal bathroom installed. Before this, like many families, bathtime was once a week in an old tin bath in front of the fire. I recollect that this was actually rather enjoyable, even though there was no such thing as shampoo, and we washed our hair with soap.
In those days my Dad appeared to me to be forever fighting the problem of cattle invading the garden. The hedge bordering the field wasn't quite so thick then and we'd wake up to find the beasts among the carefully-tended greens and my Dad outraged. He was perennially blocking up the gaps in the hedge to prevent further incursions but it took many years to make the garden stock-proof.
In between these times he took he went to a lot of trouble to ensure that we never went to bed without a story. It was usually a cowboy tale, and always embroidered with lots of detail. But by story I mean a 'telling story', not one from a book with lots of pictures. This technique seems to me to be far more worthwhile because it does so much to encourage the imagination. Twenty-five years later, as a father myself, I told the same stories to my daughter. But except for a few parents, I'm not sure this tradition will survive another generation.
Christmas time at that age brings back the most powerful memories; stockings hanging by the bed and huge expectations of Father Christmas's visit. Before the day, we'd do our bit by combing the Spinney for Holly trees that bore berries, selecting the best sprigs, and bringing them home for Mum to use in her decorations.
Come Christmas morning, and our stockings contained assorted small sweets alternately packed with fruit such as oranges, and bananas. Oranges and bananas! I don't today's kids would be too impressed with that! But twelve years after the war these were rare treats indeed.
Christmas dinner was a splendid feast because it was the one time a year that we'd have chicken as a treat. Yep, that's right. In those days chicken was a far scarcer dish because it was much more expensive than it is now, and only to be eaten once or twice a year. It just shows what's happened with the introduction of factory farming. Anyway, it was a very special meal in those days. For pudding it would always be Christmas Pudding with a bronze threepenny bit in it - because, if you found it in your pudding, you could keep it. It wasn't until I was an adult that my mum let on that she'd always cut the pudding in such a way that me brother, sister and I would always get one each.
The object that attracted my attention more than any other was the sweet tin. In those days very few kids were given sweets by the bar. Most were bought loose, and in our case, they were kept in a large tin in a cupboard in the dining room. Mum would allow us one sweet from the tin after each meal, which seemed fine at the time, but we were forever coveting extra rations.
But most of our time was spent outdoors. Dad would take us out into the field behind the garden and we would play football and all sorts of other games. He fixed up a rope swing for us from a tree close by and we spent many a happy hour swinging back and forth in long slow arcs.
The field was our haven and sanctuary. We felt perfectly safe there and our parents didn't have to worry that we could come to any harm. Now and again Barbara and I would march off to have a picnic with home-made jam sandwiches, and orange squash. It was some time before Jim could join us as he was six years younger than me, but I do remember distinctly roping him in to make up the numbers in our little cricket game when he was only three and I was nine.
Another favourite game was to play in the field using home-made tents. These comprised pointed sticks that we desperately tried to insert far enough into the ground to stand upright, let alone bear the weight of the blankets and sheets supplied by my Mum.
When the nights drew in we would stay indoors. Although we had a TV we had lots of games to play as an alternative recreation including jigsaws, colouring, plastercine, etc. The TV was a small, sixteen inch, Bush black and white model that could receive two channels - BBC and ITV. Although it wasn't much of a choice it seemed plenty enough at the time.
It seems almost impossible now to grasp that the concept that there was no daytime TV. Daily programs started at about half-past four with some great kids programs. Watch with Mother featured Andy Pandy, The Flowerpot Men, and The Woodentops. But my overall favourites were The Lone Ranger, William Tell and Robin Hood.
On the weekend mornings Dad would make us his famous flat egg and fried bread and we'd eat it at the kitchen table while listening to Childrens' Favourites on the radio. It was always the same songs every week, but we didn't mind. We'd actually be disappointed if we didn't get 'Sparky the Magic Piano', 'Nellie the Elephant', 'Billy Goats Gruff', and 'Teddy Bear's Picnic'. On Sunday evenings it was always 'Sing Something Simple', but at most other times, Dad concerned himself with teaching us the old songs like 'A You're Adorable', 'There's a Shanty', etc, - often accompanied by the strumming of his ukelele.
We were vaguely aware of pop songs but they didn't feature much in our thoughts until we were a bit older. Before nineteen-sixty (when I was eight years old) I can't consciously recollect any pop songs at all. This seems incredible now; surely every kid knows dozens of them by the time they're old enough to start school. With the coming of the Beatles and the pop scene of the sixties this changed things quite a bit but we didn't have our own radios and we weren't that bothered anyway.
Every three months or so came the dreaded visit from Tom Partridge. We weren't well off remember and three haircuts in Market Harborough were a fair old expense, so old Tom was roped in as the 'local' village hairdresser. It was awful. Apart from ending up looking like an escapee from an American Chain Gang while he carried out the operation (with fiendishly blunt scissors I might add), he'd pull your hair something rotten. Nevertheless, with my Dad offering sympathy and encouragement in the background, we somehow got through the ritual torture. I got used to it eventually, and I became resigned to the ordeal until Rod's arrival in the village - whereupon I discovered that he went to Harborough for his haircut! And he ended up with a square cut at the back instead of my duck's arse pointy bit! God damn it.
We weren't allowed to stay up much past eight o'clock or so, and I can't therefore remember many adult programs, although I do remember the first episode of Coronation Street in nineteen-sixty.
When I was a little older my parents bought me an old radio to put on my bedside cabinet. It was a proper valve radio (transistors hadn't been invented), and a fascinating thing it was too. I could lie there in the darkness with the radio dial glowing with its soft background light as I turned the tuning knob slowly to pick up an endless variety of British and foreign radio stations. Some of foreign ones marked on the dial were exotic places I'd never even heard of before, like Hilversum, and Helsinki. I soon established which were my favourite programs - like I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again on a Monday night. I'd lie there in tense anticipation of the same old joke in every episode where the man says 'It's the Black Knight', and his partner would respond (in a Jamaican accent) 'How-de-do-dere Honey'.
No way would they get away with it nowadays.
Many of our games revolved around little models. We had a fort and little plastic figures of Cowboys and Indians to go with them. I had a collection of toy soldiers - mostly plastic figures but with some metal ones - and I'd spend hours arranging and re-arranging them around the fort that my Dad had built for me. I have to admit to doing a few cissy things - Cat's cradle; French Knitting, skipping, and so on. But I'd prefer to be outside if I could, playing Hopscotch, Two-ball (bouncing two Tennis balls against the wall), or staggering around on the stilts that my Dad had made for me.
When I was a bit older I had a little errand to run. My Mum used to make extra portions of our dinner once a week for the two old Mrs Westons. They weren't very sprightly and were glad of a good hot meal on a regular basis. My job was to take the covered plates of hot food up to them on a little tray. This was always a slightly daunting experience for a lad of such tender years as myself. I'd knock at the door and it would be ages before the door would open and Sybil Weston would usher me in. It was always dark and cold in their kitchen regardless of the time of year, and, I think it's fair to say that all children of that age were slightly disconcerted by encountering old people and I was no exception. What made it slightly more eerie was that in all the years of visiting the Westons I never once saw the other Mrs Weston. One's imagination went into overdrive at the thought of an unseen old lady living somewhere in the house.
As regards other events, my first ever memory of going out with a large group of village children was when I was the youngest of a group of kids led by Rosemary Mothersole who set off to go blackberry-picking. We headed for the old tennis courts and even though I couldn't reach very high, I still managed to return home with a few berries in the bag.
I mention this because it was something that was to be repeated many more times over the years, as I took home the ingredients for my Mum's home-made jams, and pies. But this wasn't the only bounty we collected from the wild. It was much more common in those days to make the best of what nature had to offer. I suppose it's easier now to go to Tescos. But, apart from the fact that there were no supermarkets in those days, our parents were brought up in a time when people were careful with their money because they had to be. Consequently, whenever the opportunity presented itself to gather food from the wild we took it. (By the way, life seems inconceivable without a supermarket doesn't it?) Where on earth did folk buy their food from?)
So, apart from being virtually self-sufficient in vegetables and fruit from our own garden, if there was a chance to obtain anything else from nature, we took it. Now and again, I'd go mushrooming. Sometimes, I was lucky and I could find a whole load of mushrooms under the trees in the field behind the garden, but, quite often, I'd have to trudge quite a way to a known mushroom field, particularly the one behind Gumley covert. It wouldn't have been so bad but I didn't like mushrooms anyway.
Hazelnuts were bountiful but, for some reason unknown to me, we never seemed to be bothered with harvesting them. We did collect chestnuts now and again, but not seriously or more than once or twice every other year.
My dad was, and is, a keen gardener and we were press-ganged into helping to weed the garden on a regular basis. We hated this chore but we had to do it just the same. As if this wasn't enough, we were also sent on 'sticking' expeditions. Armed with old sacks we were despatched to find sticks and small branches that had fallen from the trees surrounding the field. We'd do our best, but would return home at the first opportunity with sticks awkwardly jammed into half-full sacks.
Holidays then were a little different. Foreign holidays were a very rare item indeed, far beyond the means of the average family. Cheap airfares hadn't been created in those days, and, if you wanted a holiday, you went to the British seaside.
So we were lucky that Dad and Mum could save a few pounds during the year and take us to Blackpool, Skegness of whatever, to stay in the obligatory bed and breakfast. It was plenty exciting enough for us kids and we were just as thrilled at our first sight of the sea, as kids are today when their planes touch down in Majorca.
We'd build sandcastles, paddle in the sea, dig tunnels, and go rock climbing if there were any suitable cliffs on offer. Funnily enough, I can't remember what my parents did on these occasions but I suppose I was so self-absorbed in my own activities that I didn't notice. So we'd be indulged with donkey rides, candyfloss, and all the rest of it; but only for a week, mind you.
Sometimes my Uncle Paul and Aunty Dolly would come over and take us out for the day. I had mixed feelings about this. Although I generally looked forward to it, it meant that I had to be on my best behaviour. We'd clamber aboard their Morris Minor and they'd take us to Stapleford Park, or some other attraction, with Dolly in the back seat reminding Paul not to drive too fast, and uttering 'Gently Bentley' whenever we went over a hump-backed bridge. Afterwards we'd go back to their prefab in Market Harborough for a high tea where Paul would eat enough to feed an army.
My Auntie and Uncle lived in the next-door prefabs to my grandparents in Market Harborough. The prefabs were pre-constructed wooden houses that had been built just after the war as temporary housing. They were still there twenty, or even thirty years later. I liked to visit my grandparents there because I'd never seen a house that was a bungalow before, and it was quite fascinating to walk around on top of the creaky hollow wooden floors.
By the age of ten or eleven I was going to Harborough three times a week. Two visits were for band practice (I was soon to be joined by Dave Allen in the band, and later, by Barbara as well), and one for the ABC Minors.
I think all kids my age will remember vividly the experience of going to the ABC minors at the local cinema. Nearly all towns had their cinemas in those days, and a very different experience it was then compared to now. Someone had decided that it would be fun to create a children-only show on Saturday mornings and that to attend the show you would have to join a club called the ABC minors.
You knew you were an ABC minor because you wore an ABC minors badge in your lapel or pinned to your dress. Not any old badge, mind you, a luminous one! You'd pay your sixpence to get in and settle down for the show. Before it started the curtains would draw back to show the screen displaying the lyrics to the Minor's Song. And, to the tune of Souza's Liberty Bell March, off we went. As one we would belt out our song - 'We are the boys and the girls of the minors, minors of the ABC', and so on. Every time 'ABC' appeared you would have to shout it out loud. Different world.
We were shown to our seats by an ABC Minor prefect. My cousin was one - a high honour indeed - and therefore allowed to carry a special torch. I'd sit in the stalls with my ice cream watching as the program started with a classic cartoon, and then - my favourite bit - either The Lone Ranger, or better still, The Rocket Man. The mere mention of his name sends shivers down my spine to this day. The Rocket Man was a hero who could fly anywhere by means of a rocket pack on his back. He usually landed amongst villains and proceeded to thwart a robbery or fell them with a single blow. But he could fly anywhere! If only I had a rocket pack! I'd lie awake at night dreaming of the freedom this would give me as I flew over the Spinney to land at the astonished feet of my friends. Think of the birdsí eggs I could reach!
After the interval there would be the main attraction, which would often be a cowboy film, an adventure of some sort, or something so absolutely suitable for children that it's difficult today to see how youngsters would cope with such bland innocence. But it was great fun and gave me a passion for films in my teenage years.
At home, we didn't get away without having to do our fair share of the chores. The principal one of these was weeding. This was anathema to us, but Dad made us do our bit. I'm not sure whether this was because the garden desperately needed weeding, or because he thought we needed the discipline of doing something useful, or both.
More often than that, we had to go 'sticking'. Literally, we went out to the woods with our sacks and filled them with sticks for the fire. When we were small they had to be little sticks because we couldn't break up the branches into smaller sections. As we got older, we'd be able to trudge home carrying a sack full of all sorts of bits of wood. So two thoughts occur: How many kids now go sticking? Why aren't there any old-fashioned sacks any more?
By the time I was in my last year at junior school the playing habits of Geoff, Rod, and myself were in that indefinable period of migration between child and teenager. We were long past the stage of 'ksh-ksh' shooting games, but not yet that interested in girls and other teenage passions.
But we were being exposed to some of the pastimes practised by the older children. One of these was smoking. All the 'big' kids, like Andy Seabrook did this because it looked so grown-up. One day Andy offered (forced) me one to try one and I did, not knowing what to do of course. I cautiously blew out a few puffs and it didn't seem so bad, but obviously I wasn't inhaling!
So it was quite commonplace to see Andy with his packet of twenty 'Park Drive', or 'No. 6'. Geoff would occasionally sneak a cigarette from his Mum and would make an elaborate show of lighting and smoking it. Now and again I'd share in the thrill of this forbidden practice by taking a few puffs without inhaling but, as my parents didn't smoke, I couldn't have actually obtained any fags even if I'd wanted to.
However, we did take to keeping our eyes open for any fags that had been stubbed out without having been smoked all the way down. Tipped cigarettes were very rare in those days and if you were careful you could still get a few puffs from a very small stub or 'dog-end'. We made a mental list of where such dog-ends might be found. For instance, patrons would emerge from the Bell Inn and throw away half-finished fags before they got into their cars to drive away. We would scour the car park religiously once a day to see what had been discarded. Anything over an inch long would be seized on, and anything over two inches clutched high as a trophy accompanied by a suitable exclamation.
On some days Rod would join Geoff and I and we'd start from the Bell and walk the complete length of the street to Home Farm and then back on the other side again staring at the pavement and collecting whatever dog-ends we could find. We'd then take our little cache into the Spinney, split the casings, and empty all the contents to make one small pile of tobacco. Geoff would have spirited away some of his Mum's fag papers out of the house and we'd roll up the makings into a single fag. It usually took two or three attempts before we'd made one that would hold together, and after we'd accomplished this feat we'd sit there smoking it (well I pretended to), all the while on the lookout for any adults that would tell us off.
Every few weeks there would be great excitement if one of us managed to obtain a whole cigarette from somewhere. We regarded such things with awe. They were like some sort of treasure and I certainly never remember any occasion where we had more than one. At school one day a girl called Susan Chamberlain said that if we came over to her place she'd 'borrow' a whole fag each for us from her Dad's case. Enormously excited by this prospective prize, Geoff, Rod, and I cycled all the way to her village about five miles north of Church Langton. We were a bit wary of approaching the house, but, fortuitously, as we were standing on the edge of the village astride our bikes, she came into view and stopped her own bike in front of us to announce that she couldn't get any because her Dad was watching. We were unbelievably disappointed and cursed her all the ten miles and two hours that it took us to make our way back home. I only tell the story because it must seem absurd now.
At this age I was allowed out on quite long bike rides. All our bikes had either Smartie tops inserted in the wheel spokes to make a kaleidoscope of colour as we sped past, or wooden ice-lolly sticks that would make a noise like a motorbike when jammed into the brake calliper. We'd sometimes travel a good few miles to Laughton, Mowsley, Foxton, Smeeton Westerby and, once or twice even further afield. We never had proper lights or anything for our bikes so we rarely went out after dark. More often we just used the cycle journey to take our search for birds' eggs into new territory. We'd scoured every wood, hedge and tree for miles around Gumley.
But the majority of our playing time was still spent on foot and we were still roaming far and wide across the countryside. The older we got the further we travelled until we felt we knew every wood and spinney within a two-mile radius of the village. We didn't set out to do this deliberately of course; it was just curiosity combined with a natural enjoyment of being in the woods. When we were in the woods we were always fascinated at any sign of other people had passed that way over previous months or years and spent ages speculating on whom it might of been.
One day two or tree of us discovered a new game playing in The Mot. As I mentioned earlier, the Mot was a slightly spooky place and we didn't go there often. But, one day, we decided to check it out again for any birds' eggs possibilities. When we got there we could see that one of the most likely egg sites was the small island in the middle of the pond. How to get there was the problem.
We circumvented it until we'd made up our minds which part of the surrounding Spinney represented the smallest distance to the island. We stamped down the reeds at the edge of the bank until we'd gained some semi-solid footing to a point another five or six feet towards the island. This left us in a quandary until we realised that we could throw branches, logs, and more reeds into the water at the end of our improvised pier. Enough of this material enabled us to step out another foot or two - only sinking down into the water about half-way to the top of our wellies. And so it went on for a good few hours until we'd managed to get all the way to the island. There weren't any eggs there after all but by this time we'd had so much fun that our original quest was forgotten.
What's remarkable about this story is that we were completely oblivious to the fact that we'd half-destroyed the reeds around the banks of the Mot. The point is that no-one seemed to give a hoot about the environment in those days. All the caring, green issues that are talked about today were just not a fashionable topic in those days. I'm not saying farmers didn't manage the countryside if they got the chance - after all, they had to sustain it year on year - but there just wasn't the green consciousness that exists in the minds of the general public nowadays.
I distinctly remember first hearing the word 'environment' in one of my geography lessons in when I was about fifteen. A far-sighted teacher tried to explain to us what the term meant and it seemed an entirely novel philosophy to me. Certainly when playing as a child, the idea that I might be careful not to destroy trees and hedges, catch and kill wildlife, or dam streams never crossed my mind or the minds of my friends. There were lots of woods and wildlife! My mind boggles when I think of the havoc we used to wreak in those days.
But our semi-destructive habits weren't just confined to the woods. One of our favourite games was to invade some of the outlying farm buildings and see what new opportunities they presented.
In order of preference, the Andrews' farm buildings at the bottom of the village were our favourite haunt. First of all was the big Dutch barn inevitably well-stocked with bales of both hay and straw. So we could climb up the sides of the haystack, jump around the top, and re-arrange the bales to make dens. These could be quite elaborate constructions because we could manoeuvre bales around to make tunnels leading to chambers at the end. But often this wasn't enough, and we'd heave bales from the top of the stack over the sides to make a pile of jumbled ones below that we could jump down on. So we'd end up with an avalanche of bales that we could slide down, jump into, or bounce on. God knows what Barry and Bert made of all this when they next saw their haystack.
And then it was straight on to the large tractor shed. Although the shed purported to be locked, there was always a way in, usually be means of a window or gap under the door. We'd then taking it turns to clamber onto the tractors and other machinery and pretend to drive them with all the accompanying sound effects. The combine harvesters were best because you were so high up, but trailers were good to run across and various other machines offered a chance to try and make it from one end of the shed to the other across them all without touching the ground. Great fun.
Like most village children in those days, we were almost exclusively confined to playing in the village. Although we knew children in neighbouring villages through school, we didn't feel and overwhelming compulsion to mix with them, and, even if we had, we didn't possess the means of travelling there.
In those days fewer people owned cars, but most of our Dads did. But we didn't really think of asking our Dads to take us to another village to play. I'm not sure whether they would have agreed anyway, but I don't ever remember asking. Nowadays it's not unusual for Dads (I'm one, remember) to drop their kids off at a friend's house to play. At a lot of parents think nothing of it. But in those days we just didn't do it. Parents we less well off then and there were petrol costs to be considered, but I don't think it was that. I think it's the fact that in those days we didn't often stay in at someone's house.
In other words, we only thought of playing as playing outdoors. Remember, there was no daytime TV, no video recorders, no CDs, and so on. So what reason was there for staying in? Therefore the prospect of asking your Dad to drop you off somewhere in the middle of a strange village to meet your friends seemed a little pointless. Even if you were to be dropped at a friend's house and then rush out to play this didn't seem to be quite worth it somehow, since you would only be playing the sorts of games in the woods that you could play in your own village, and your Dad would also have to come out later and collect you.
But there might be another even more fundamental cause than that. I think the underlying reason was that we had so many outlets for adventure in Gumley. We could never be bored. There were always new trees to be climbed, new dens to make, and new mischief to be practised. Why would we want to go anywhere else?
I can only remember one single occasion while I was at Junior School that contravened this rule of thumb. One day Geoff and I decided to walk to Church Langton to visit a friend from school who said we could get hold of a House Martin's egg each. Church Langton was five miles away and a fair old walk for a couple of ten-year-olds. But we made it and went hunting for our eggs (which we never got). It was on the way back that we really became tired. We'd already done a fair bit of walking trying to find nests and it was getting late before we set off. By the time we'd crossed Foxton crossroads we were dog-tired, and fit to drop. We were very luck that Mr Pickering from the village happened along at that time and stopped to give us a ride for the last two miles home. I remember the incident so clearly because to give ourselves encouragement, Geoff and I had held hands while walking up the road in the gathering gloom - the last time in my life that I ever held hands with someone of my own gender.
Even at that age we were proud to be country lads and despised any 'Townie' ways, and one of the biggest insults you could hand out to someone was to call them a Townie. Every year the Boy Scouts would come and camp somewhere around the village and we would sneer at their pathetic (our perception) attempts to play at living in the country. They knew more knots than we did but I bet they couldn't climb trees, ignore the smell of farmyard dung, or have a birds egg collection! We were being unfair of course, but they would have been the same if we were on their patch and kids behave like this the world over.
I only ever tried two things that were a shade artificial - by artificial I mean not a traditional game learnt by village lads. The first I read in a book, and this was to identify animal tracks and make plaster casts of them. I succeeded in acquiring the necessary Plaster of Paris powder from Harborough and set out with bag, cardboard box, and bottle of water to capture the image of my first fox track.
Things always look so easy in books and never quite work out the same in practice do they? In my attempts, the plaster mix either sank into the earth leaving a residue of gunge on the surface, or, if set sufficiently, broke into large pieces as I prised it up or carried home. I stomped home having decided that this was a stupid idea.
We were taught at school about Owl pellets. This suited us much more and we spent a couple of happy days climbing every tree that contained a hole big enough for an owl to nest in. Our perseverance was rewarded when down near Andrews' barns we found an isolated tree with an old nest, and - joy-of-joys - a few pellets, We dissected them carefully to find the bones of small mammals (just as we'd been told to expect). They didn't tell us to expect the fleas and creepie crawlies though, and we soon abandoned this little prospective hobby.
I was still happiest in the Spinney. I felt I knew every bush and tree personally. I'd walk though it from south to north every day on my way to call for Rod or Geoff. My favourite pastime was to run along the paths as fast as I could while simultaneously trying to make as little noise as possible. I'd read in my books that American Indians could do this, and, if they could, I was determined to be their equal. I learnt to run while keeping my eyes on the ground and managing to avoid small twigs and branches, which would make a sound if stepped on. I'd run lightly so as to not make any thumping sounds (easier in summer; it was difficult in wellies), and duck and weave under branches and around bushes. I'd arrive at the other end breathless but convinced that I'd made it without anyone being aware of my presence. Robin Hood wins again!
What I haven't mentioned is all the injuries. One is bound to get hurt when you're playing as a child, but playing the way we did made you more prone to injury than most kids. It wasn't just falling out of trees (although we did that often enough), but the barbed wire, the stingers, the thorns, the dangerous buildings, the farm animals, the implements, and the lethal play things. I put a thorn through my foot and had to go to hospital. Geoff cut his foot open with his Dad's axe. Rod fell out of a tree and hurt his shoulder. We got stung from head to foot, drenched from falling in the lake, cut, scuffed, and bruised. We destroyed our clothes, accidentally discovering ever-increasing ways of tearing and ripping them to shreds. My mum must have despaired at it all.
The fascination with wheels continued. It was at this time that we seriously began using 'trucks'. Trucks were our word for four-wheel go-carts - two steerable wheels at the front of a wooden body atop large rear pram wheels. I can't remember when these first emerged. Perhaps Andy Seabrook had the first one that I ever saw. But I know that in no time at all, Geoff, Rod, and I were hooked.
We started by using the truck's string to pull it up to the top of the village slope outside the Stables. Two of us would climb aboard, lift our feet from the road, and off we'd go. A good run would get us as far as the phone box before we'd slam our feet to the ground and wear down the soles of our shoes. It was great fun even if we had to trudge back all the way back up to the top of the village to start again.
Amongst children, I suppose we were almost unique in this activity because the village topology - being on a long slope - was so conducive to every form of free-wheeling transport. Anyway, after a time I'd persuaded Dad to make me my very own truck. It was a proud moment when I walked off up the street to join the others with their trucks so that we could make our way to the best slopes for the thrilling rides that awaited. On each excursion I knew I was taking a risk because sometimes we overturned if we took corners too tightly, and sometimes we were hurt as we grazed knees and elbows; but we didn't care.
I decorated my truck. I had a 'Tiger in the Tank' sticker from the well-known Esso advert, and a large Union Jack flag hanging from the rear on a pole nailed to the rear seat. We gradually became more adventurous until we were ready for the 'Grand Run'. The start point for this was just outside Pop Jelley's cottage at the top end of the Three-Cornered Spinney. The sense of trepidation, anticipation, and fear as we climbed aboard was a rarely-experienced thrill even to this day. We'd be off, slowly gathering pace, as we rushed past the Dark Spinney, hardly making the left-hand bend to come into the village, past the Stables, and shooting out into the middle of the road at the top of the village. Then it was alternately medium pace and very fast as we passed Ashby's, the Phone Box, and screamed past my house. Arriving at the top of the hill below the village was the scariest moment of all as we hit maximum speed before we took the left-hand fork and carried on all to half-way up the hill before Holyland's egg farm.
Of all our games, this was perhaps the most exciting. It's a good example of a childhood game that can never be repeated by any succeeding generation of village children. Quite simply, you couldn't do it now because of the traffic. We were travelling a mile and a half right through the village smack in the middle of the road. We never once thought of the fact that we might meet a car coming the other way. We just assumed we'd get a clean run because the presence of any sort of vehicle was so unusual an event. Even so it was a miracle we didn't kill ourselves.
One thing that hasn't changed to this day is that Gumley has no streetlights. I think the inhabitants prefer it that way even though it can be inconvenient at times - especially if one is walking back from church in the dark. And by dark I mean dark - absolutely pitch black. I don't think Townies realise how black is real darkness when there aren't even faint reflections from nearby communities.
For children there was an extra dimension to this because even boys at this age can be a little frightened by the dark, and I have to admit to being a bit scared myself on a number of occasions. The mind would play tricks on you and you would imagine all sorts of monsters waiting for you in the recesses at each side of the road.
There were a number of occasions in the winter when I had to return home from a night playing in at Geoff's or Rod's house. I can remember as if it was yesterday how I would start walking slowly and then begin to run faster and faster over the entire length of the village street. I always ran down the middle of the road imagining all sorts of demons hiding in the doorways and farmyards waiting to 'get' me. The older I got the faster I could run and I used to gain confidence that the invisible demon would have to run pretty damn fast to catch me. I'd always burst breathlessly through our front door, grateful that I'd survived another gauntlet of danger.
Before the winter nights set in, one of the traditional autumn pastimes was playing conkers.
The games started when we decided that the conkers were ready and we set off for the Conker Tree. This well-known landmark was a giant Horse Chestnut standing proudly in Seabrook's field just behind Ashby's big field. It's a majestic specimen that can be guaranteed to spawn a large and abundant crop of conkers each year. So the only problem we had was getting our hands on the biggest ones.
There were two basic techniques. The first, and most dangerous, was to climb up the tree and try and shake them down. This was fraught with danger because you had to get quite near to the end of the branches in order to shake them about vigorously enough to dislodge the conkers - and quite near to the end meant much thinner branches. Although we fell out of the tree once or twice, we usually managed to grab something on the way down and we never had a serious accident.
The second method was to throw sticks at the conkers to try and knock them off the tree. This could take some time before we achieved any sort of success and the sticks themselves inevitably got stuck up the tree. So we'd have to go up the tree to get our sticks back anyway.
We'd arrive back home with our pockets bulging and quickly set about boring holes through the centre of the biggest specimens with one of my Mums skewers. Threading string through was always tricky because the hole wasn't big enough, so you'd have to force it through with a nail or similar implement. A knot at the bottom and you were ready to go. If you managed to bash your opponentís conker to pieces your conker became a one-er; smash another and it became a two-er and so on. I'd take half a dozen to school and play all-comers in the break times. It wasn't unusual to own a five-er, or even higher, but it was rare to get beyond a ten-er. We all had our own special techniques for making the conkers harder. Oven-baking was the most obvious ploy to extend the life of your conker, but it was a bit obvious and other kids would refuse to play you. I favoured the pickling method, where I would soak the conker over a few days in either vinegar, white spirit, or paraffin. I think my best-ever one using this technique was about a twenty-eight-er.
When I was forced to stay in by virtue of the weather or seasons, I'd be hooked on my weekly comics. These were a rare treat being delivered once a week by the paperboy (even though we didn't take a paper). At first I read the Dandy, but soon switched to the Beano. A year or two later I manager to persuade my parents that I was worth two comics and I avidly devoured The Victor each week.
As well as reading comics and little one shilling war books, I started to take an interest in making model aircraft - not big ones, but small ones from plastic airfix kits. It resulted in a small collection of Spitfires, Lancasters, Heinkels, and other war-time aircraft.
So, all-in-all, I had something to occupy myself with at home or outside. But I was always happiest flitting from tree to tree in the Spinney in an attempt to merge into the background foliage so as not to be seen by an imaginary 'enemy'. In those days an eleven-year-old's imagination was at the perfect stage of development to allow you to pretend to be a courageous British soldier, Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, or Wyatt Earp.
Gates but no bill
There was no shop in the village, and there still isn't to this day. There used to be a butcherís shop before the First World War, and other houses have sold bits and pieces (like Freer's Nursery), but there was still no shop when I was a boy.
Instead we had deliveries and travelling vans. Along with the milkman making his rounds (quite late in the morning by the time he got to us), coal was delivered by the coalman, and the butcher delivered twice a week. However, folk could travel to Market Harborough on the twice-weekly bus that came on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Most folk didn't have access to cars like they do now, and, of course, there were no such thing as supermarkets. People grew their own vegetables and had simpler tastes for food and drink. And when they needed groceries the either went on the bus or they waited until Herbert visited on Saturday nights.
Herbert was the owner of a travelling grocery 'van'. In reality this van was an old, clapped-out, lorry stuffed to the aisles with every manner of tinned goods and other basic commodities. When I say aisles, I mean aisle, because you would enter the lorry by means of a step at the back, and walk into a single aisle in the centre of the lorry's rear with assorted goods packed onto shelves either side of you.
Herbert would travel slowly up the street, sounding the van's horn, and stopping every fifty yards or so. I suppose half the village women would come out and buy the odd few bits and pieces, or step up into the back to have a look around. When I was very young I didn't pay much attention to Herbert's van, but I gradually became aware that he also stocked sweets and other assorted goodies. Out parents would give us a few pennies, and we'd stare at the selection of loose sweets on display taking ages to make our choice.
Sherbert Fountains were a must. Not only did they taste nice, but you could suck up the sherbet powder through the liquorice tube and then blow it over your friends. Liquorice generally was a sound buy as it came it great long strands, although I was never very keen myself. I was more of a honeycomb man; great blobs of it (the forerunner to Crunchy bars I suppose), so sweet and sticky it stuck to the roof of your mouth. Wagon wheels were a treat, but a bit expensive a threepence a time, and a tube of smarties or spangles represented better value for money.
Despite your best intentions one of you always ended up with a tube of Love Hearts. It wasn't considered very manly to buy these, as it went without saying that anything to do with love or girls was unquestionably cissy. But we still used to somehow find ourselves sharing a packet, taking one from the tube, and immediately scanning the back to check our personal message set in confectionery. Slogans like 'Kiss me', 'I'm yours', and 'Mine forever' spring to mind. Yuk! Still we'd leave with our goodies to consume them in peace - either to one of our tree or spinney dens, or, as we got older, to the Spinney Wall or the slope at the bottom end of the Spinney.
In those days there were no cans of fizzy drink. I'd never heard of Coke or Pepsi, and we drank squash if we wanted a soft drink. Mind you, once or twice a year we'd somehow obtain enough money to buy crisps and a bottle of Vimto from the pub. We had to dare each other to go in, walk down the hall, and knock on the little serving hatch. It was very unnerving for kids like ourselves, especially when Stan Mothersole peered at us though the gap to ask us what we wanted. Welcome we weren't.
But sitting on the stone benches on the pub porch made it all worthwhile as we slurped away at our Vimto through our straws until we reached the bottom and could then vie with each other for who could make the most disgusting noise. The crisps had the little blue bags of salt in which you had to treat with care or you'd end up with the whole bag spread over one crisp. These occasions were all the more memorable because they were rare treats indeed and for the most part we had to make do with a sweet from Mum's tin.
The Colonel was joint Master of the Fernie Hunt. Because of this a meet would take place two or three times a year, starting at the Big Field. Hundreds of people would congregate before the start, and horse transporters would pack the roads on either side.
The hunt always brought out an anarchic streak in Geoff and I, because like the majority of the village folk, we didn't have a horse and wouldn't have known how to ride one if we had. So like everyone else, when the post horn sounded the riders would be off across the field while the ordinary village folk were left to alternatively run and walk after them in a vain attempt to keep up. I always felt like a serf on these occasions. It was made worse when at one meeting, Rod had a horse to ride! There was something about him being up there six feet above the ground looking down at us that must have irritated some inherited medieval chip on my shoulder. But he didn't ride to hounds very often, and we spent most of our time making fun of the rouged old ladies riding side saddle, and the part-time riders who were obviously less sure of themselves in the saddle. I ran across many fields after many riders on many occasions, but I never saw anything except hounds and riders about forty-six fields away riding backwards and forwards in pursuit of hounds that were, in turn, a dozen fields ahead of them.
I suppose all boys were interested in cars and things mechanical. So we took special notice of all the cars and farm vehicles owned by the inhabitants of the village. A new car, or change of car, was always news - unless it was Bill Allen, who appeared to change his every month. Car identification was easier in those days for three reasons.
One, the appearance of cars were more distinctive in those days. Modern aerodynamics had yet to force all manufacturers to make cars that looked the same as each other. A Hillman Hunter really did look different from a Standard Vanguard or an Austin Cambridge. Austin vans were popular with the farmers; if you were well-off you might own a Jaguar; the first Ford Cortina had just appeared. But if you didn't have too much money, you'd inevitably end up with an old banger. This could be something pre-war even, but more often an old Morris Minor, or Triumph. There was a sensation when the first minis were introduced around nineteen-fifty-nine because they were so distinctive. But most people made do with an old car like a Zephyr, Ford Consul, or Rover 90.
Two, there were no foreign cars. Well, virtually none anyway. Certainly I can't remember seeing one before I was ten years old. People just didn't buy foreign cars, and there were no Japanese imports to compete with home-built models. It was also a bit soon after the war to be seen driving a German or Italian car even if they were available. Like a lot of manufacturing, English and British goods were seen as the 'best'. We despised things 'Made in Hong Kong', and found it hard to believe any other country could make manufactured goods as well as we could. We were certainly in for a shock, weren't we!
Three, the number plates were more distinctive then. It was much easier to memorise and visualise a car when the registration didn't contain a suffix or a prefix. I still remember an old Austin Bill Allen had with the number AAY 97. Fewer letters and numbers meant that cars took on a greater personality, and were easier to identify.
But it wasn't just cars. Tractors and other agricultural vehicles were important in the village. Endless debates took place about the merits of a Massey-Fergie against a David Brown. When we were young we were mostly interested in playing on them as they stood in the yard. I had a particular fondness for an old Fordson in Seabrook's orchard.
I do remember the cultural shock caused by Arthur Seabrook turning up one day astride a brand-new Zeta tractor. Like many others, I was horrified that he had brought a tractor from an Eastern Europe manufacturer. God knows what he saw in it, except, no doubt, it was cheaper.
Just like they have now, Gumley boasts a pretty decent cricket team. They play on a specially reserved strip of grass on the Big Field close to the old gated road that runs from Laughton to Gumley. As a child Geoff and I would hang around the cricket pavilion while matches were taking place on a Saturday or a Sunday.
This was good fun. Even though we were far to young to be involved in any of the actual cricket, we knew most of the batsmen, including Andy and the lads from Foxton who formed the backbone of the team. Initially we'd climb all the trees at the front of the little spinney next to the pavilion, and sit in the branches, laughing and mucking about. When we were a little older we were sometimes allowed to operate the scoreboard. This sounds grand but was only a wooden board with hooks on, which were used to suspend the large tin numbers. But the real significance of the Big Field was that it was gated.
This meant that all the cars coming through the field had to stop and open the gates at either end. So it was a village tradition for the boys to open and close the gates for passing motorists in the hope of some small reward. In the summer we were there every Sunday afternoon.
It was only worth standing there for hours on end on a Sunday because of the increase in traffic; you would be wasting your time on a weekday. The technique, which we'd honed to fine art over the years, was to judge the distance and speed of the car as it came towards you, and open the gate at just the right instant so that the car had to slow momentarily, and thereby implicitly acknowledge your effort. Too soon and the car would just sail through, and the driver might not even realise that you'd open the gate especially for him; too late and they'd have to slow right down or stop, which would just annoy them. The gate was big and heavy and really needed two of us when we were small to push the thing slowly open. We'd stand in front of it beaming at the drivers in expectation, and, about once every half-a-dozen openings, we'd be rewarded by either an odd penny or two thrown through the window, or sometimes the car would actually stop while the driver fished around in his pocket for some change (this always baffled me since the whole point of the exercise was not to stop). If the coins were thrown out of the window we'd frantically scrabble around for them in the dust, in the anticipation that one of them might be a threepenny bit.
It became a sort of tradition. The drivers got used to us, and us to them. We'd become familiar with ones who never gave us anything and deliberately make them slow down to almost stopping point, and then make rude signs at them after they'd driven by. Some drivers would merely acknowledge us with a wave of the hand or shouted thanks through their open window. The village folk never paid of course - and we never expected them to - since this was a tourist trade scheme (the same the world over, eh).
There were usually two of us and it was customary to pool all the money received and divide it up. On occasion this could cause friction, especially if there were more than two of us, and the money wouldn't divide evenly. Sometimes we'd even fall out over it, and one of us would walk to the other end of the Big Field and operate the gate at the Laughton end instead. This caused even more friction because drivers coming from this direction were unlikely to pay twice.
Even if I was by myself I'd also try and operate the Saddington gate adjacent to the Big Field gate. Although this wasn't in such popular use, it nevertheless turned up trumps from time to time. I was caught in a dilemma if I was there by myself and two cars arrived at the same time. I'd have to try and judge which car was most likely to arrive first, and which one might be the one that would pay. Even if there were two of you, you could easily panic on those rare occasions when a number of cars arrived at the same time because it was best if we could open and close the gates between cars. There was no point standing there with the gate open for a convoy of cars - unless they were very close together - as it then wasn't obvious that you'd done anything at all, and moreover, they'd be driving through too fast to donate anything to the 'Gumley Lads Charitable Foundation' (all funds to good causes, i.e. Herbert's sweets).
A high and a low stick in the memory as if it were yesterday. The high was when a clay pigeon shoot took place in the field and lots of expensive cars arrived and left throughout the day. One of them gave us half-a-crown! This was unprecedented. We danced around in high excitement, passing it back and forwards to each other, as we stared at it in awe. It was a devil to split up.
The low came about because when we were waiting for cars to come we'd quite often sit on the gate or the gatepost. On one such occasion it was Geoff's turn to open the gate and I sat on the gatepost to watch. I jokingly tried to help by twisting the top of the gate upright, and the next thing I new my finger was caught in it. Now this was a heavy gate. I screamed as my finger was crushed and shouted for Geoff to close the gate again. Geoff was momentarily stuck to know what to do. On the one hand he wanted to close the gate; on the other he had a car bearing down on him. He couldn't even see clearly what the problem was anyway. But eventually my yells persuaded him to close the gate and I could release my now flattened finger. It's still flat to this day.
I wasn't really conscious of the regeneration of the village at all. New births and children younger than me held very little interest, and as the older residents passed away I made a mental note but that was about it. It was all a bit remote at that age. Sometimes I'd only become aware that an elderly resident had died when I noticed a new grave in the churchyard. I remember Gage Seabrook passing on in nineteen-sixty-three, but, although Mr Boothaway and Tom Keegan died in the same year, I can't recall those specific events.
Houses in the village were also part of this regeneration. Every year or two one would be demolished and a new one built to take its place, but it didn't happen very often. I suppose only five per cent of the houses changed while I lived there, although the village now gives the impression that more construction has taken place in the years since then.
At the end of the summer holidays it was time for me to go to Grammar School. I'll never forget my first day. I walked up to the village hall to catch the bus in my new uniform - black blazer edged in red piping, with a black and red quartered cap. Of course, Geoff, Rod, Andy and the rest of them took the mickey out of me until their bus came. It was quite a sobering occasion for me when I had to take a separate bus for the first time. No-one else from the village had to go to Market Harborough Grammar School because David Allen went to Beachamp Grammar at Oadby. Furthermore, I knew I'd never be joined by any fellow pupils on this separate bus because I was the last to be selected in this way as my class was the last year to sit the eleven plus. After me all children went to the same comprehensive school. It was quite strange at the Grammar School moving up through the years with no new intake coming in to follow us.
Lessons were quite different from the Junior School, and we had to take new subjects like Latin. A certain academic standard was expected and I soon realised that everyone there had passed the eleven plus and I wasn't the cleverest boy in the class any more. But most of the lessons were interesting - particularly Geography. I usually contrived to spend most of the lesson poring over the world map and making endless calculations to confirm that the British colonies in Africa (coloured pink on the map) were greater in area than the French (coloured green). We always came out on top (just), and I'd sit back relieved that world order had been preserved again.
At eleven years old playground pranks were still commonplace and we spent most of our playtimes getting up to mischief. I learned lots of new tricks including the careful folding of a piece of paper to make a water bomb. Once filled with water these made great objects for throwing at children you took a temporary dislike to.
Wrestling and fighting took on a slightly more aggressive flavour because we were that bit bigger. I got into one or two scrapes but nothing serious because disputes were more often than not settled by wrestling on the ground. The most prevalent teasing was flicked earlobes, kicks up the backside and Chinese burn wrist tortures.
But I came through the next couple of years being educated in the same traditional way that Grammar School kids had been for many years. Fortunately, it didn't erect insurmountable barriers between Geoff, Rod, and I, and we continued to play all our usual games together after we had all arrived home from school.
Hooked at the lake
Because we were a bit bigger and stronger new opportunities for play arose.
For a bit of variety we spent quite a bit of time playing with slings. You don't see much of that now! We simply cut pieces of leather into oblong shapes, made slits at each end, and then inserted boot laces into the slits. I was amazed at the power I could generate once we'd whirled the sling around in the air a few times. Armed with a small pebble or stone, we'd let go of one of the laces and the stone would fly at least a hundred feet into the air. Unfortunately, although the sling was powerful it was also incredibly inaccurate. Unless you got the timing just right, the stone would be ejected forwards, backwards, sideways, in fact just about anywhere. One quickly learned not to stand behind the person wielding the sling.
So we spent hours in contests trying to hit telegraph poles, barn roofs and doors, birds, just about anything in fact. Better still was going down to Wallace's house in the woods and trying to break the few remaining windows - although getting a shot anywhere near the open windows was pretty good. We had loads of goes at hitting large birds like crows and so on, but I don't ever remember being successful. But it was great fun to try.
There's no doubt that we could be pretty naughty at times; make that very naughty.
The phone box was an endless source of fascination. We often gathered at the phone box because it was one of the landmarks in the village. The old telephone was a heavy bakelite model with an 'A' button and a 'B' button. To make a telephone call, you dialled your desired number, inserted four old pennies, pressed 'A' if you got through, and 'B' if you didn't to get your money back. What we eventually worked out is that you could 'tap' the phone. Basically, this meant that if you had a number, say three four five six, you simply tapped the receiver rest three times, paused, tapped it four times, paused, and so on. To this day I don't know why this worked, but it did. You could actually make free phone calls!
So we would select a hapless victim at random from the phone book and ring them up by tapping out the number. When they answered, we'd say 'Is that Mr/Mrs Smith (or whoever) on the line?' They'd say yes. We'd say 'Well get off it, there's a train coming', slam the phone down, and convulse with laughter.
Soon we'd graduated to a better trick. If you used the telephone and didn't get through, when you pressed button 'B' your four pennies slid down an internal chute and dropped into a small tray at the bottom of the cabinet. What we did was to dig up some moist clay from the ground in the Spinney, and press it up into the 'B' channel chute as far as we could go. Having little hands helped. What would happen is that overnight, the clay would harden and form a barrier half-way down the chute. A person using the phone and pressing button 'B' would expect their pennies to be deposited into the little tray, but they didn't appear, of course, because they became lodged behind the clay. The telephone user would peer at the tray, put their fingers in the chute, and peer at the cabinet with furrowed brow. They'd always press the 'B' button a number of times but without success.
So we'd go back the next day, shove a stick up the channel break the clay, and be rewarded with a number of pennies in multiples of four. It wasn't usually more than eight or the clay would break. One some special occasions we'd actually see this happen from a hiding place behind the Haynes's wall, and curl up with laughter at the expression on the face of the unfortunate victim.
Four pennies bought a lot of sweets.
On our occasional visits to the lake we would sometimes encounter Stan Hopwell (or one or two other locals) sitting by the lake and fishing. Fishing was strictly private and one had to obtain the Colonel's permission - which wasn't often sought or given. Paradoxically, the fishing was superb because hardly anyone ever fished there.
Obviously we were interested in what was going on with all the paraphernalia of rod, line, float, keep net, etc. A few days later Geoff was able to borrow a rod for us to try and we quickly became hooked (geddit?) on this sport. I eventually managed to obtain my own rod and during the next long school holidays we spent every spare minute we had trying our hand at this sport.
We learnt fast. How to bait the hook (difficult); how to cast (more difficult); how to take the fish off the hook (very difficult); and so on. We learned about different types of bait, different floats and weights, how to identify different fish, and all manner of things fishy. Along the way we had some great fun as we caught our hook and line in trees, on some unseen underground obstruction, and on our clothes. We fell in the water, slipped over, and broke our equipment. We moved around the lake trying to find the best spots, and eventually made the hazardous journey across a fallen tree to the little island in the middle of the lake. Inevitably Pop Jelly was soon on our case but we'd obtained permission to fish and, to her chagrin, she couldn't do anything about it.
For the next two or three years we continued to fish avidly in all but the worst weather. It slowly replaced egg-collecting as our main occupier of our free time. I faithfully recorded each day's fishing in my 'Fishing Dairy', making notes of where we went and what we caught.
After a while we tried different venues - Foxton Locks, the Reservoir, and the Canal. But the lake was local and the best. Even school friends would come and visit us; but apart from this, we had the place virtually to ourselves.
We'd heard lots of stories about monster Pike in the lake but usually only managed to catch Perch or Roach. Most of these were quite small, and anything over two pounds caused unbelievable excitement. We always threw our catches back as we had been told that these species were mostly inedible. However, one day, I caught a very large Perch which I decided I just had to take home and get my Mum to cook for tea. I bashed it on the head to kill it and carried my trophy proudly home for all to see. We put in on the scales, and as we were examining the weight closely, it suddenly flipped off the dish and onto the table in some sort of delayed death throw. I must have jumped back five feet.
Notwithstanding the fishing, we still hadn't grown out of all things childish. It's just that they needed to by a bit more physical to hold our interest. Anything to do with water was a big attraction.
I had two favourite games, and I think Geoff enjoyed them as much as I did. Unusually, both of them involved playing in the fields to the bottom of the village (more often we played at Geoff's end). The first one consisted of finding a log, throwing it in the stream at the bottom o the hill, and then guiding it along with the current so it never got stuck. Sounds tame, but it wasn't.
No sooner had we chucked the log into the stream than it would get stuck. We had to somehow scramble around the bank to unstick it by reaching over the bank, or if it wasn't accessible, utilising long branches to push it away. It was obviously worse if it was stuck on the other side of the stream. Sometimes we had to cross over somehow by jumping over, using stepping stones, or walking up and down the stream until we could find a place to cross.
So we'd start a couple of miles to the west of Foxton Locks (because all streams seemed to flow into the Grand Union canal which the locks were situated on), and slowly nudge our six-foot-long log through the twists and turns of the stream. The big challenge was the tunnels. There were two or three tunnels to get through and we would hold our breaths as we prodded the log through the entrance and dash around to the exit to wait in expectation for the log to emerge. Because the sides of the tunnel were man-made and smooth it usually did and we would whoop with joy and run after it as it floated on down the stream. Eventually, we'd steer it through the final tunnel to guide it into the canal. We'd watch it for a while but that was usually as far as it went. Our imagination would run riot as we imagined 'our log' flowing down the canal, along rivers, to float majestically into the oceans and seas of the world.
My second favourite game was to traipse across Andrews' field to the bridge about a mile and a half below the Locks, midway between Foxton and Debdale. This was a relatively unused farm-vehicle bridge connected two fields on each side of the canal. The trick on this bridge was to throw large sticks into the water on the 'upside' of the canal and try and 'bomb' them as they passed under the bridge to ensure that they didn't reach the downstream side and therefore float away on the canal. The canal itself was very slow-flowing, which gave us ample time to find stones and rocks to bombard it with as it neared the bridge. If the stick (or small log) was about to emerge unscathed from the far side of the bridge we'd run around panic-stricken, and trying to find stones and rocks to stop it getting away. In desperation we'd prise huge bricks from the ground or the ramparts of the bridge in an effort to sink the piece of wood.
On the smaller streams, we'd occasionally make damns. These would consist of absolutely anything we could get our hands on. First we'd throw in branches and wood, and, as soon as they 'stuck', in would go twigs, grass, stones, mud, anything as we fought to stem the flow of water. In some instances it would get out of hand, and we'd end up forming a large artificial pond perhaps twenty feet across. We'd run away across the field feeling guilty and imagining that it wouldn't be long before the whole waterway infrastructure of the Grand Union canal would grind to a complete halt.
Despite all this fun with water, we'd still be drawn back to the woods and spinneys whenever we got the opportunity. Among our favourite games was venturing forth with a goodly length of rope to play' pulling down the branches'. The object of the game was to walk through the spinneys searching out old dead tree branches. When we spotted a suitable branch we'd tie a stick to the end of our rope, hurl it over the branch, and attempt to pull it down to earth. Most of the time we succeeded with a satisfying crash, but, occasionally, we'd bite off more than we could chew, and spend ages trying to pull down an obstinate branch that would defy our efforts. Great fun though.
When we were bored we played with penknives, either using them to cut sticks to a fine point, or more often, to throw at trees. We'd go through the Spinney choosing a tree a few feet away and attempting to throw the knife through the air so that the blade would hit the trunk and lodge in it. We got quite good at this and slowly worked up the distance until the risks became too great because if you missed the tree you'd lose your knife in the undergrowth.
As an alternative to that we would play 'splits' instead. The way this worked is that you faced each other a yard apart with feet together, and you'd throw the knife into the grass parallel with your opponents feet. But it didn't count if it was more than a shoe's width away from your opponent's shoe. You had to move your foot out to be in-line with the mark of the knife on the ground, and, in this way, you were forced to slowly spread your legs out further and further until you were in agony from the stretch and finding it exceedingly difficult to throw the knife back. We obviously got hit on the shoe - which didn't really hurt - but you weren't allowed deliberately to do so. It played havoc with your footwear.
The only completely manufactured item we ever played with was the small metal and rubber catapults that we could buy from Green's hardware store in Harborough. They weren't expensive and it wasn't worth our while trying to make ones ourselves when such good ones could be bought cheaply. They were pretty lethal affairs. At full stretch and with a small pebble, they were very powerful - if a shade inaccurate - at up to fifty yards.
From my first awareness of the village we were surrounded by farming and all things agricultural.
I grew up with Andrews' farm situated opposite our house and the continuous comings and goings that farm labouring entailed. Tractors arrived and left the farmyard several times a day with all sorts of attachments - ploughs, seeders, trailers, harrows, and bailers. There was never a lot of stock in Andrews' farm and most of the barns were empty, or in transient use, which was ideal for me and my friends to explore and play in.
All the other farms in the village were the normal type for the area - mixed farming, arable and stock. When my friends and I were young we would simply treated the four farms in the village as giant playgrounds. But, each year, as we grew older, we were drawn into helping out with various minor tasks at one or other of the farms. At first this would be simple little things such as helping to drive sheep or cattle along the road.
In those days it was very common to find farmers driving their sheep or cattle from one field or another along the roads around the village or even through the village. Local folk took it for granted as one of the features of country life. Now and again someone in a car would get stuck behind the herd or flock and have to wait until they were ushered into the intended field or farmyard. There were always two or three of us roped in to help drive them along, and stand in entrances to stop them getting onto private land. You'd need eyes in the back of your head to stop them turning around, getting away from you, or simply coming to a complete halt.
I suppose this is another typical example of a practice that has virtually disappeared. Nowadays, you couldn't drive large numbers of animals along the public highway for a couple of miles without causing a traffic jam a hundred yards long, or you risk someone tearing around the corner and driving straight into you. The age of the animal transporter has taken over.
The main activity that I'd help out with was harvest time. Harvesting was much more of a manually-intensive activity in those days than it is now. It really did require as many adults and older kids as possible to pitch in and give a hand - all without pay of course. Stanley Edwards was a particularly good sport for this - always ready and willing to help without needing to be asked.
Although we'd help as best we could in the fields (we weren't strong enough to pitchfork the bales onto the wagons), the big thrill for Geoff, Rod, and me, was the ride home on the trailers piled high with bales of straw. We perched precariously on the top of these ancient trailers, almost certain to hit various tree branches on the way back to the village. We'd see them coming, shout loud warnings to each other, and lay spread-eagled on the top of the stack to avoid getting hit. But the biggest thrill was arriving in the village, and waving to any folks that were about.
You see it was a very manly thing then to be part of the farming work. It seemed very grown-up to be acting as proper farmers helping out in these adult activities while still only twelve or thirteen years old; a real combination of pride and exhibitionism. We were very disappointed if we didn't see anyone as we rode proudly through the village atop these monoliths.
But as we grew older the work took on a bit more significance.
When I was fourteen I was deemed to be old enough to start work properly during the eight-week-long school summer holiday. So, along with Rod, I signed on for my first real job at Ashby's farm. Kelly Ashby purported to be the boss but his son Eric was already the driving force behind the whole enterprise. But it was Kelly who took me on, deciding unilaterally that he would pay me one shilling and sixpence an hour (for the benefit of my daughter, that's seven-and-a-half pence an hour).
I quickly had to learn the ropes. For instance, the farm had its own fuel tanks - red diesel for agricultural use, and white for going to market (there was a steep fine to pay if you were ever caught using red in town, although I never heard of anyone getting caught). Kelly would take me out in his old Land-Rover with Tip the sheep dog hanging out of the back. Kelly was an old-fashioned farmer who would look up at the sky every hour or so and predict the weather. He taught me how to tie knots, round up beasts, and I would follow him round the fields as he plucked ears of corn, rubbed them in his hands, and smelled them to see if they were ready to be harvested. I saw for the first time that his farmers cap had a use other than to cover his head when he held it in his hand to cushion barbed wire when we had to clamber over fences.
Back on the farmyard we always seemed to me to be wading through a sea of mud. It was everywhere, and you had to wear wellies almost regardless of the season of the year.
The best thing that about working on the farm is that I learned to drive. I was barely a teenager before I got my first chance to drive a tractor across the fields. Because all the knobs and levers were giant-size, it wasn't difficult to operate a tractor once you had managed to engage the gears. As you were going along fairly slowly it gave you time to thing about what to do next. We learnt initially by Andy and Eric showing us how and riding on the back to coach us on the use of the controls. But after a while we were trusted enough to take a tractor from one field to another, and eventually to hitch trailers or harrows to the back and take those as well.
Months went by and soon I was asked to bring the Land Rover back to the farm. This was scary at first but I soon got the hang of it. I was about fifteen before I was allowed to take farm vehicles out on the roads - way below the legal age - but if Kelly wasn't bothered, nor was I. It seemed to be an accepted part of village life that farmers and farm helpers could drive anything anywhere, at any age, and in any state. Some of the older vehicles were completely unroadworthy, had no numberplates, no lights, and precious little brakes. But you rarely met anyone coming the other way, and if you did, it was up to them to get out of the way.
We had a bit of a run of bad luck. I drove the tractor into a ditch near Foxton and we had a hell of a job getting it out. Then Rod and I got a little too sure of ourselves, took the Foxton corner too fast, and tipped a whole trailer full of bales into the local cemetery. Kelly came along in the Land Rover a few minutes later. He screeched to a halt, and surveyed the scene: the trailer tipped on its side; a hundred bales scattered on the verge and all over the graves; Rod and I standing by the side of the road looking sheepish. His breathless exclamation of 'What happened' lives with me to this day as one of the all-time great superfluous questions.
But by the time I was fourteen or fifteen I was expected to be strong enough to lift bales. Initially, this consisted of attempting to lift them up on to the trailer, and then transferring them from the trailer to the haystack in the Dutch Barn when we got back to the farmyard. But I was soon asked to help with the baling.
In those days the big, round, black, plastic bales that you see now hadn't been invented. Instead bales came in standard oblong shapes held together with binder twine. They were compressed into these shapes by a baler machine pulled along by a tractor that was, in turn, driven along the rows of straw left by a combine harvester. But instead of letting bales spew out of the back of the baler to land all over the field, it made more sense to stack the bales into little mounds so that they could easily be collected by the tractor and trailer at a later date. To do this, you needed a baler sledge.
This device was tied to the rear of the baler and needed someone to 'ride' the sledge. The rider caught the bales extruded by the baler and stacked them in squares three or four high until he had a dozen or more bales. He then undid a catch set half-way down the floor of the baler and 'tipped' the back of the sledge backwards and shoved the bales off the back to deposit a neat pile of bales ready for collection. That was the theory anyway. In practice, if you got behind for any reason, you would be all over the place. You'd either miss-stack the bales, they'd collapse, or worse still, you could accidentally pull one of the strings off the bale that would then be in imminent danger of disintegrating completely.
All this took place in very hot conditions, in choking straw dust, and in no time at all you were drenched in sweat. I'd arrive home exhausted after this work and caked in straw dust from head to toe. But it was man's work and I was proud to do it.
Some things were less rewarding, like mucking out the cowsheds, scything thistles, and turning hay. I helped Bert Davis deliver lambs sometimes, and was with him once when we had pull one out of its mother and give it the kiss-of-life. I learnt to suckle baby calves by mixing up milk paste in a bucket, dipping my fingers in the milk, and then putting them in the calf's mouth to encourage it to suck.
Altogether a very satisfying way of life.
I suppose fifteen was about the limit of my childhood playing. We still carried on with some of our country games but I don't think you could call it playing any more.
We were about this age when we became interested in air rifles. We'd always been around people who owned guns. All the farmers had shotguns, although we definitely weren't allowed to use real guns like this in our early years. But because the entire village farming community had guns, knowledge of them rubbed off on us by association. We knew the difference between a .410 and a twelve bore, and we could recognise cartridges as we came across them when walking through the woods.
Once I was asked to 'beat' for the Colonel and one of his shooting parties. I wasn't really sure what I was doing at first, but I gradually became aware that it was my job (and the jobs of half-a dozen youngsters and adults like me) to walk through the woods bashing shrubs and undergrowth to frighten out the pheasants. The shooters stood back from the wood about fifty yards or so and blasted the birds as they flew out from the perimeter. I received half-a-crown for my trouble and went home exhausted.
I'd been aware of air rifles for some time since Andy Seabrook had had one when I was much younger. One of Andy's favourite games was to coerce Geoff and I into being his target. We'd stand with our backs to him about one hundred feet away and he'd fire a pellet at the back of our legs. It would sting like hell without penetrating the material of our trousers. Andy would then get us to move closer to see how near we could get before it became unbearable.
Geoff had his own air rifle like most of the other older boys in the village. Before long my parents had bought me one for my birthday and we could go out together picking our targets at random - trees, telegraph poles, the newly-installed village name signs, other signposts, and, of course, birds. I'm afraid we took quite a toll of the local bird population. It didn't occur to us that this was wrong. After all the farmers did the same thing to pigeons, crows, and other vermin. However, we were careful not to go after the rarer songbirds, like tits and robins.
One day we were bad lads like only lads at that age can be. We shot a duck. We did it because we wanted to be like real survivalists living off the land, and we thought that this was a good start. So we built a fire in the Spinney and put the duck on it. To be honest, we hadn't got a clue. We didn't pluck the bird so the feathers singed. We left it on the fire for what seemed like hours (but was probably not that long) before retrieving the bird and trying to pull a bit off it to taste. It was raw.
We gave up in disgust, and never tried to repeat the experiment again.
Now and again Geoff would be allowed out with a .410 and we'd go after rabbits. Occasionally we'd be successful, and take them home for the pot. But if we really wanted rabbits, we go snaring.
Geoff's Dad had taught him to set snares to catch rabbits and we soon caught the bug ourselves and Rod, Geoff, and I went to it with enthusiasm.
The basic technique was to find a rabbit 'run'. Rabbits use the same narrow path in the grass when they run across fields and through hedges. Although only three or four inches wide, it isn't that difficult to make out these routes and that's where you set your snare. The snare itself consists of a semi-stiff wire with a loop at one end, with the other attached to a stake that is firmly driven into the ground. A small twig is placed half-way between the stake and the loop to hold the snare in place about three inches above the ground. The rabbit comes tearing along the run, into the loop which quickly draws tight, and that's the end of them. I'd thought this a bit cruel when I first saw it but was re-assured that they died instantly from a broken neck.
So we would leave up to a dozen snares at various strategic points in the Big Field, and return the next day to examine them. It wasn't unusual to find three of four rabbits caught and ready to take back in our sack to sell to the butcher. I was quite happy to take part in this for a few months until on one morning inspection we heard a strange noise before we even got to the Big Field. The noise turned out to be the screams of a rabbit caught in one of our snares, not by its neck but by its leg - which had nearly been torn off. We despatched it quickly by ringing its neck but this put me off the sport and I didn't go snaring again.
I was still collecting birds' eggs. My Dad was working at a disused airfield near Desborough and I had a marvellous opportunity to take my bike over and go off on my own across the airfield to explore the woods in search of new eggs. Before I got that far I had to cross the old airfield and I had some eerie experiences when I wandered alone around the old hangars and control towers and found all the drawings and graffiti written twenty years ago by airmen long since departed. It was quite a moving experience.
Still, my main objective was to search the surrounding woods thoroughly for new eggs and I soon came up trumps with two or three new discoveries that I would carry home proudly to show off to Geoff and Rod.
But, when you're fifteen, life isn't all about play. The year before I'd started working on the farm in the evenings and during the school holidays. But this wasn't the only source of pocket money available.
One of the common ones was potato-picking. The village lads and I would cycle down to Lubenham Lodge and sign on for the spud-picking along with a few locals and a few boys from my school who I'd told about the opportunity. Mr Hart, the farmer took our names as we turned up and we'd each be assigned our own patch in the field. The tractor would come by and unearth a long row of potatoes and our job was to scrabble around and load the unearthed spuds into the pile of old sacks that we'd been given. Inevitably, we'd muck about and throw small spuds at each other, or just sit on the sacks and try and avoid doing any work. But you couldn't get away with it for long and it was extremely hard work. You always went home with an aching back from the constant bending down.
It wasn't the only way of earning extra money though. Like Susan Pickering and others before me, I took on the village paper round. I only did it for a year or two before handing it on to someone else. On other occasions, Geoff and I took on small jobs for local farmers, even doing a morning's weeding for two-and-sixpence.
Our newest craze was riding motorbikes around the field behind the Spinney. Andy Seabrook got us started on this when he'd turn up on all sorts of old, rusty, bikes which he'd race around a track over the grass. Initially, we'd ride behind him clutching at any available handholds to avoid being thrown off. But we were soon riding the machines ourselves oblivious of the infernal racket they created and the tracks gouged into the field. We came to grief a number of times but it meant we were well equipped to take to the road legally on our sixteenth birthdays.
A few childhood games lingered on. In the Spinney we built stupendous dens. Long gone were the feeble branch-built constructions of earlier years. This time we went in with axes (borrowed from the farm) and cut down great big trees. Not the big oaks of course, but trunks up to a foot across were no problem, especially when they landed with a resoundingly satisfying crash. We'd lop off the side branches and drag them down to the mudslide where we used binder twine to build them into a real fort. Yes, a real fort with trunks eight feet high, wood inside to stand on and therefore proper ramparts that you could defend. We'd invite my brother Jim and Geoff's brother George to attack us; they'd duly oblige, and we'd pelt them with sticks, mud, and, because we were near the lake, tin cans full of water. A great time was had by all until Pop Jelley discovered the fort. She told us off but we were a bit bigger by then, and told her where to get off (or words to that effect) and a right old argument ensued. She went off threatening all sorts, and we cheered at the victory in defence of our superb fort.
The next day we returned to find it was a pile of ashes.
I do consider myself to be very lucky. I was blessed with a countryside childhood in an age of relative innocence. A childhood full of discovery, mischief, and adventure. Like any other child, I didn't appreciate it the time. It's only retrospectively as an adult that I've come to appreciate my good fortune.
But living in the country meant we were shielded from some of the sophistication of urban living. The sheer naiveté of our existence, and the ingenuousness of the outlook of my friends and I then, is what is so striking. Street-wise we were not. We were insulated socially to the extent that I'd never played in a football team with eleven players in it until I was eleven; I'd never heard of anyone being kicked in a fight, let alone stabbed with a knife. I possessed none of the knowledge of city boys that were growing up at the same time. I knew country ways but nothing about money, bus timetables, social etiquette, shopping, or girls. I didn't know how to catch a train and got lost the first time I had to catch one. I didn't have a clue about clothes (mind you - I still haven't).
To travel through the village today makes me almost unbearably sad. Gumley seems to have suffered from what can only be described as infill. All the yards have gone: the yard next to the pub, the Bull Yard, the yard opposite my house, Seabrook's yard is a stables, and the Stables themselves are being converted to houses. Worst of all, to all intents and purposes, the Spinney has gone. Almost the whole of the lower half of the Spinney has been converted into extensions. You can't walk through it and you can't walk around it. So the sadness comes from knowing that Gumley children will never be able to play as I did; never be able to find games in farmyards; never be able to take the same routes.
You can't halt progress and I'm not saying that you can live in the past or turn the clock back. I don't begrudge people their gardens and their new houses. But the spaces within the village have gone and the reasons for playing my games have gone. It's just a shame that even if they wanted to, the village children don't have the same opportunities, the same landscape, and the same playing grounds. Part of me knows that this is irrelevant because they don't want to do what I did anyway. There are no new dens; no new paths. There really are too many distractions now; the Rocket Man actually arrived at the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics.
Have you notices how village people don't sit now? What I mean is that once upon a time every village had its seats, and plenty of elderly residents willing to sit on them and pass an hour watching the world go by. I think this is some kind of parallel. I don't know whether people can either play or sit now without wondering what TV program they're missing.
All this is my own subjective opinion. I don't expect or seek agreement. Some may say that I'm not entitled to such views because I've not lived in the village since I left in search of employment and adventure when I was nineteen years old. But I would contend that there are two ways of living in a village. You can move in and merely exchange the view from your kitchen window with the one you left behind in suburbia, or you can live in the village - exploring its geography, its wildlife, and its way of life. I can at least claim the latter privilege.
I've omitted lots of details: childhood illnesses, fashions, pets, and all sorts of things. This record was never meant to be a complete documentary of my upbringing but rather a small marker of the way childhood has changed since then. But I hope I've drawn a small portrait, and, above all, given you an impression of those days in the village.
But I'm doubly fortunate. Here I am, thirty-five years later, and able still to return to my roots and my family. Still able to come home to the house that I was brought up in. Still able to emerge from the back door and find my Dad digging the same unique patch of garden that he's been tending every year for forty years. Still able to walk up the village and see the tree den that Geoff and I built over the Spinney wall all those years ago. What a marvellous sense of permanence and security. What super luck.
Twenty years ago I sat on a hillside in Afghanistan in the midst of crisis and danger. To this day what I believe helped me get through the experience was the sense of belonging somewhere, a kind of feeling that I did have a base, roots, an identity. We are what we are, but we are also what we were. We are shaped by our past as well as our present. What sustained me spiritually then, as well as now, is the wonder of my childhood, the love of my family, and that there is a place on earth that I can call home.